2/27/12 - joe mccarthy and the kennedys

In today's excerpt - we all know the popular image of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy—swarthy, foreboding and drunk—making bombastic accusations during his 1950s anti-Communist crusade. Yet early in his senate career, he was clumsy-but-likeable and always available to do favors for his business backers. So it was that Ambassador Joe Kennedy, father to John Kennedy and always eager to bend Washington legislation to his favor, befriended the young senator. And thus we find young Senator McCarthy as a guest at the Kennedy compound, playing football with the Kennedy sons and dating the Kennedy daughters:

"What exactly the Kennedys expected from their farmboy prodigy makes for interesting speculation. 'I like Joe McCarthy,' the Ambassador was frank to admit later. 'I would see him when I went down to Washington, and when he was visiting in Palm Beach he'd come around to my house for a drink. I invited him to Cape Cod.'

"At least at first 'I thought he'd be a sensation.' But McCarthy overdid things, and often during weekends with the family his gusto and willing­ness to play along left him a setup for the raucous Kennedy lifestyle, a figure of fun. ...

"McCarthy got bounced around. He cracked a rib playing touch football; after four quick errors at shortstop they threw him out of a softball game to shamble up the lawn, humiliated, and watch from the porch. His perform­ance in the water was worse. 'They gave him the boat treatment,' Rose wrote Bobby Kennedy in 1950, 'i.e., throwing him out of the boat, and then Eunice, in her usual girlish glee, pushed him under. To everybody's con­cern and astonishment, the Senator came up with a ghastly look on his face, puffing and paddling. The wonder of it all was that he did not drown on the spot because, you see, coming from Wisconsin he had never learned to swim. . . . However,' Rose concluded, 'I am sure they will never try anything like that on him again, although you can never tell.'

"Another weekend, 'he went out on my boat,' the Ambassador would remember, and 'almost drowned swimming behind it but he never complained.' McCarthy was 'always pleasant, he was never a crab.' At least, never to them. Another time, McCarthy got tangled in the painter of a sailboat; Jack dove in to try to save him. To one friend, after a particularly hectic weekend, McCarthy let a little of it out: 'Christ, I came up there to rest!'

"McCarthy amused [Kennedy daughter] Eunice—he was like junk food after the restrictive Kennedy diet—who dated him a few times, quite seriously at first. His per­sonal tastes were simple throughout those bachelor years: a fast lay before he got too sloshed, often atop the bedroom coats. Eunice was a little too deli­cate for anything like that, so high-strung as an insomniac teenager that houseguests were alerted not to flush the toilet at night for fear of waking her up. Before long Eunice moved on to R. Sargent Shriver, a high-minded Newsweek editor who started out advising Joe Kennedy as to the publishability of Joe Junior's letters from Europe, then went on salary to consult with Eunice and help manage the Merchandise Mart. When they were married in 1953, McCarthy presented the couple with a silver cigarette box, inscribed 'To Eunice and Bob, from one who lost.' Meanwhile, McCarthy consoled himself with sisters Pat and Jean Kennedy. Jean remembered Joe's line of anti-Communist small talk, after which he 'kissed very hard.'

"By then the old financier [Joe Kennedy] was calling, more often than McCarthy really liked, usually for a favor. 'Remind me to check the size of his campaign con­tribution,' McCarthy scrawled on a note to Roy Cohn during one conversa­tion. 'I'm not sure it's worth it.' Other backers, less well known and far less demanding, were attracted now to McCarthy's noisy crusade."


Burton Hersh


Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America


Basic Books


Copyright 2007 by Burton Hersh


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