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McCarthyism, Terrorism & Fear

Haynes Johnson

     ... Pulitzer Prize winning political journalist. Mr. Johnson's book, The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism is his 11th, including a number of best-sellers. He has covered every president since Eisenhower and practically every significant national and international story for more than 4 decades. Joining the "Washington Post"” in 1969 as reporter, then editor and columnist, he is also a widely admired television commentator. With a Masters degree in American History, Mr. Johnson is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, was a professor at Princeton, lecturer at U.C./Berkeley and scholar at the Brookings Institution. His father also won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting.


A straight line connects Senator Joe McCarthy to today, says veteran political journalist Haynes Johnson. He says the danger McCarthy posed in his era has left a powerful imprint, a lasting, corrosive legacy very much in evidence now. Mr. Johnson cites the terrifying destructiveness of character assassination, of sneers and fear, the use of attacks on people to divide the country, enforced conformity and people fearful of taking a stand on issues, lives destroyed, citizens being detained indefinitely or tortured in U.S. prisons, and abroad, with no one held accountable for abuses -- which IS McCarthyism.

We'd better understand how this happened, Mr. Johnson warns, what lessons should be learned, how to respond. Why? Because in addition to democracy itself, personal, family and national self-interest are all at stake.

It's important to remember that fear, repressions, anxieties and demagoguery are not new in American life, Mr. Johnson says. And, while it’s understandable to look to the nation's leader in a moment of crisis like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, the danger is that leader can exploit the climate of fear. And George W. Bush did, Mr. Johnson says. He considers the results the tragedy of our time -- America's actions in Iraq creating more terrorists and Americans now even less secure at home and abroad.

This has been a failure across the board, Mr. Johnson reports -- a failure of America's political process, of its media and of the public itself. Yes, there has in fact been a huge change in American politics, Mr. Johnson says. When McCarthy's colleagues in the Senate finally censured him after his 3 year rampage, the Republicans split right down the middle. Twenty-two moderate and progressive Republican Senators voted to censure McCarthy. Now they have all but vanished. Twenty-two others -- the Republican right-wing of the time -- voted against censuring McCarthy. And those hard-liners inherited the GOP.

In the political process, the real tragedy of McCarthyism that continues to this day, Mr. Johnson says, is the failure to say, "We have to stand up. We're elected to be counted. To stand for something." Back then, it was Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson who refused. Now, Democrats and what few moderate Republicans remain have been so spooked by the McCarthy era that they, too, have failed.

Then there's Haynes Johnson's own beloved field of journalism. Another devastating failure. As bad as the press was during the McCarthy period, Mr. Johnson says, there was some tremendous reporting done. And, he says, over time it did create a climate of opposition to McCarthy that affected his standing. In the last 5 years? Until Hurricane Katrina, the attitude has been practically quiescence. Don't challenge. Or question. Press-as-cheerleader.

As Haynes Johnson travels the country, he does NOT find a nation divided. He sees Americans confused, distrustful and disgusted, hungry for someone authentic who will tell them the truth. He believes it's an opening at this moment in American history through which a different kind of politics can emerge. Don't wait for a god-like figure, he says. Politics changes from the bottom up. That takes time. Eventually a leader with an authentic voice emerges. Mr. Johnson saw it happen reporting on America's Civil Rights Movement, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.


[This Program was recorded October 18, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

America is better than the miasma of suspicion and hatred, the division in the country, and the backdrop of fear we experience today, Haynes Johnson assures Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Using fear to exploit fear is directly linked to Joe McCarthy, Mr. Johnson says, urging resistance to such tactics.  


Conversation 2

Fearmongering is not new in American life, Mr. Johnson notes, listing bygone fears, repressions, anxieties and demagoguery. The real test of democracy, he says quoting Lincoln, is how you strike the balance between a genuine need for security and the people’s liberties. Americans themselves are NOT riven with hatred and suspicion, Mr. Johnson says and reports the true current condition in the country at large. Describing the personal and political ugliness of Joe McCarthy, Mr. Johnson enumerates journalism's massive failures in this age of terrorism.


Conversation 3

While it's natural to rally behind a country's leader in a moment of crisis, the danger lies in the leader exploiting that climate, which Bush did, Mr. Johnson says. He summarizes the tragedy of our times and draws a straight line between Joe McCarthy and today, holding both Democrats and Republicans responsible. He defines true leadership in the political process and outlines the role of the press. The HUGE change in American politics, Mr. Johnson says, is the McCarthy wing inheriting the Republican Party.


Conversation 4

Mr. Johnson revisits Eisenhower's unwillingness to confront Joe McCarthy, then Lyndon Johnson's refusal to do so. The tragedy of McCarthyism continues to this day, Mr. Johnson says: now as then, the political process, press and leaders refuse to stand up and take a stand against the character assassinations, sneers, fear, attacks and terrifying destructiveness that is McCarthyism, with stifling conformity a byproduct. His evidence spans decades. What can be done? Politics changes from the bottom up, Mr. Johnson reminds us, citing his experience within America's Civil Rights Movement.


 Conversation 5

Joe McCarthy left a dangerous, lasting, corrosive legacy that we had better understand, Mr. Johnson says -- how it happened, what lessons should be learned and how to respond. He reminds us of the terror McCarthy sowed at the height of his power. Mr. Johnson compares good reporting on McCarthy to outrages during the last 5 years of media-as-cheerleader. He warns of the personal dangers of political excesses, calling individuals to be critical of political leaders and wary of abuses of power -- that's what Americans do, Mr. Johnson reminds us.


Conversation 6

Outlining the role of the media -- to challenge authority, to help us understand the life around us, not to support the powerful -- Mr. Johnson tells why “"Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press," and insists that asking questions is everyone’s job.



Haynes Johnson told the world the truth about Jim Crow America in 1966 with his stories from Selma, Alabama, winning the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for reporting. Now he tells us all the truth about the painful and destructive legacy of Joe McCarthy, still very much alive, actively at work corroding American democracy. We thank Mr. Johnson for his steady hand, clear vision, constant courage and unyielding integrity. We are deeply indebted to Mr. Johnson for keeping bright the spark lit in the progressive era, standing firm against Joe McCarthy and his henchmen, then and now.

It takes a lot of people to make any given Show happen. We thank Vivian Lawland, Promotion & Publicity for Chapter 11 Books for connecting us with Evan Boorstyn, Associate Director of Publicity, Harcourt Trade Publishers. We are appreciate them both.

Related Links:

The Age of Anxiety: From McCarthyism to Terrorism is published by Harcourt.

Mr. Johnson is Professor and Knight Chair on the Journalism faculty of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream productively explores how American history and mythology contribute to the abuses of the concept of "terror."

In The Cousins' Wars, American Dynasty, American Theocracy, and Bad Money, Kevin Phillips charts the long historial background providing the context of our current challenges.

Tim Weiner documents the CIA's intelligence failures and destructive foreign policy interventions which were central constituents of the age of anxiety in Legacy of Ashes.

Other nations and peoples struggle to make democracy work: former Prime Minister Kim Campbell in Canada; founder of the opposition party in Hong Kong, Christine Loh ; Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams in Ireland; in South Africa, attorney, priest and former "terrorist" Barney Pityana. Though from different parties and different parts of their country, Canadian Provincial Premiers Gary Doer & Bernard Lord talk about the importance of overcoming their differences in order to solve common problems.

In another installment of her V.I Warshawski novels, Blacklist, Sara Paretsky uses fiction to explore the human impact of McCarthyism and the “blacklists” created by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Cornel West brings together Western thought and tradition in his examination of democracy and imperialism in Democracy Matters.

Garry Wills argues that America has gone through paroxisms of fundamentalist anti-rationalism every hundred years, roughly at the turn of each century.

Arianna Huffington's On Becoming Fearless examines the ways in which one may master the fears which threaten us.& Loathsome Joe and

Two relvant pieces on the Huffington Post: Fighting Bob & Loathsome Joe and McCarthyism, Terrorism & Fear.

Chellie Pingree is president of Common Cause, the “"citizens' lobby" which seeks to hold power accountable.

Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam says that successful politics is based in “"social capital" and “"we stories" ... and less television.

In our conversation with New Press founder André Schiffren, he talks about the sources for the names on Joe McCarthy's infamous "list."

Former President of CNN Tom Johnson and former CNN reporter Bonnie Anderson both talk about current problems with the media. And, ABC News reporter Robert Krulwich shares his take on the problems facing American television news. In 1997, during our first conversation with The New Yorker Annals of Communication editor Ken Auletta, we talked about how the media was changing. Much has changed since then, and much hasn't.

Author, Yale law professor and conservative Christian Stephen Carter has written extensively and talks with us about the role of religion in electoral politics. Christian minister Robin Meyers warns that the perversion of Christianity is destroying the world. His prescription straight from the life of Jesus? "Fear not."  Evangelical Christian Jim Wallis provides a complementary view.

... And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

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