Journalist Haynes Johnson discusses his book "The Age of Anxiety."
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GUEST: Haynes Johnson
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And my guest, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Haynes Johnson, has now written a book about our national past that is not only wonderfully well written, but that as an erstwhile American historian I also consider importantly and frighteningly relevant to our own times: “The Age Of Anxiety – McCarthyism To Terrorism”.
In it, indeed, there is the briefest of chapters — seven pages titled “The Politics of Fear” — that incredibly well define the legacy of Joe McCarthy and America in the 1950’s and 60’s:
It writes “…McCarthyism in one form or other outlived the man”, this is the way Johnson writes about the time.
“Its impact on our politics, and on the way Americans view their leaders and their government, has been profound. It continues to this day, and we are still forced to come to grips with it.”
“The so-called culture wars that afflict our public discourse”, Mr. Johnson continues, “are another of McCarthy’s legacies, as is the continuing demonization of liberals, the national press, and others…”.
“Extremism — and the suspicion and hatred it engenders – may be Joe McCarthy’s most lasting legacy”.
And, at a time when “Good Night and Good Luck”, George Clooney’s bold new movie about Ed Murrow — MY newsman hero — is so much admired, I would ask my guest if it really would, as he suggests, have made a great difference then and perhaps now had President Dwight Eisenhower — “had Ike,” as he writes with his immense prestige and personal popularity, rallied Americans against McCarthy through an Edward R. Murrow type of address to the nation”. You think it would have worked?
JOHNSON: I do. And I have revised, entirely, my opinion of Eisenhower. When I came to Washington in ’57, he was starting his second term. And I was a young reporter and, sort of cocky, I guess, and I thought Ike was sort of a doddering old guy and not very swift.
I now have revised entirely my feeling about Ike from his own records and diary entries. He despised McCarthy, couldn’t stand him, he was determined to stop him if he could. But he wouldn’t take him on. If he had taken him on in an Edward R. Murrow kind of address to the country with his enormous prestige … Ike … to the country, I think it would have ended McCarthy. Because Ike had all the right instincts … decent, fair-minded, honorable, the uses of power, he wouldn’t abuse … we wouldn’t have gone to Vietnam, if it hadn’t been for… if Ike had been around at that time.
So I, I think it’s a tragedy that he … as he would say to his aides who pressed him, pressed him, pressed him, that “Do something about McCarthy. Take him on. Stop him. He’s ruining the country. He’s bad for America. He’s, he’s destroying your Presidency.”
And Ike would say, “I won’t get down in the gutter with that guy.” And that went on for year after year. When he finally did mobilize, behind the scenes, people in the White House and the Republican party to help bring McCarthy down and censure him, that was three or four years had gone by of McCarthyism and the country had paid a terrible price for it.
I do think an Edward R. Murrow kind of address … all he had to do was just simply say … Eisenhower, the commander … the hero, the decent all American guy … I think it would have brought down McCarthy.
HEFFNER: Well, now, I’m a little puzzled. Tell me how your odyssey relating to your feelings about Ike had changed, particularly in regards to this matter of what he could have …
JOHNSON: That’s right.
HEFFNER: … but didn’t do.
JOHNSON: Yeah. I, I actually thought, when I was there, I covered … Eisenhower was still three years in the Presidency when I was a reporter in Washington. I didn’t think too much of his policies at the time. I thought he was weak, sort of vacillating. And, but it was only looking back and re-telling the story of McCarthy that I found the diary entries and the letters to Eisenhower. His brother Milton Eisenhower, whom Ike admired more than anybody alive, listened to … his closest advisor, urged Ike … over and again, “You’ve got to take on this guy McCarthy, you can’t let him stand up this way.”
And Ike would get angry, purple. I interviewed General Goodpastor who was one of Ike’s closest aides in the White House. A great man, he died at the age of 90 just as this book was about to come out. And he would, he … Goodpastor … would describe to me how Ike, in the Oval Office, would talk about McCarthy.
And Ike had a terrible temper that he never showed in public. And he said, his… the blood would rise up in his face to the roots of his hair, when he’d talk about McCarthy but he’d say, “I won’t get down in the gutter with that guy, that’s what he wants. He will self-destruct in the long run, when the people see him, understand him for what he is.” That was true. But all these times went by and the most telling thing, how I really revised my opinion is, to see the diary entries that Eisenhower dictated to Ann Whitman his secretary in the White House, in the Oval Office, they are just filled with these entries about McCarthy, “he wants to be President. He never will be if I can do anything about him. He’s going to ruin the Republican Party. The Right Wing is attacking me and my, my people. And if they continue to do this …”, this is what stunned me, “I will leave the Republican Party”, this is Ike as President of the United States, ‘I will leave the Republican Party and appeal to the great middle, moderate middle Americans in this country..” Not Left, not Right … but to get on with… the things that matter to this country.
And he said that not once, at least three times. And I, I thought, “Oh, what a tragedy”. I wish he had. It would have ended a lot of the divisiveness and the hatred of that period. So that’s how I’ve had a … yes, that’s an odyssey.
I’ve had a complete turnaround and I now see Ike as a strong, admirable, decent person that I didn’t in my youth and naiveté at the time. But I also see him as much more of a tragic figure, because I think he could have done something that would have been more enduring.
HEFFNER: You seem to me to be more forgiving of Ike who you feel could have …
HEFFNER: … done something very effectively than you are of JFK as he… removed himself from prime votes, or when he could have cast votes relating to McCarthy … didn’t.
JOHNSON: It’s interesting. The first big story I wrote … I wrote the lead story at John Kennedy’s inauguration, looking right up on him on that snowy day, cold and all that. And I was enraptured by Kennedy. Again, there’s old Ike in the background, the oldest President … at that time … behind him, and I thought … this portrait of the, the young generation, the torch is passed, all that stuff. And…
But the more I look back on Kennedy now. This is interesting … I still have a sense of great tragedy and what might have been with John Kennedy. I haven’t lost that at all. That illusion, or, or reality.
But I … when, when it comes to his Profiles in Courage he was not a profile in courage when it came to Joe McCarthy. He never spoke out against him. He knew him. His father, of course, old Joe had bankrolled McCarthy, brought him up to Hyannis Port, brought him down to the estate in Florida. McCarthy became part of the family, in effect, he dated the sister Pat, the sister Eunice was a bridesmaid at McCarthy’s wedding. Bobby worked on the Committee for Joe McCarthy as the counsel. First…of the counsel…assistant counsel, then later when he left, he became the minority counsel on McCarthy’s infamous investigating committee.
So I … but, but Kennedy never really spoke out about Joe McCarthy and I think the reason was simply pure politics. He knew his father had bankrolled McCarthy, and his father was absolutely adamant that Joe McCarthy not enter Massachusetts when John Kennedy was running for the Senate seat, which was the springboard to the Presidency. He had to move up, in old Joe’s mind, from the House of Representatives to the Senate. Then he’s a national figure … in 52. And he was running against Henry Cabot Lodge, this… scion of the great Lodge family … much favored.
Eisenhower’s national campaign … ’52 … Eisenhower’s year. And old Joe didn’t want Joe McCarthy to go in that state. A Republican, Irish Catholic and so forth. And he never did. McCarthy campaigned for people all over the United States. Brought home eight scalps, as they called it. Defeated eight Democrats. Huge power. He never entered Massachusetts.
Now, Arthur Schlesinger, when he did his wonderful book “A Thousand Days,” recalls asking John Kennedy … he said, “Why didn’t you take on Joe McCarthy, when the two of you were in the Senate?”
And he quotes young JFK as saying, “Hell, half of my constituents are Irish Catholics, they think McCarthy’s a hero.” So he just stayed out of the fray. I say, in the book it’s not a profile in courage. And when it came to the ultimate censure vote, in which every single Senator was recorded, Republicans and Democrats, on the vote to censure Joe McCarthy by his colleagues in the Senate … only one Democrat didn’t vote, it was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Now, it’s true he was having the back operation from the PT109 injuries that he sustained, but he could have paired his vote, he could have gone on record and said how he would have voted … up or down … on Joe McCarthy. His friends say, or his adherents say, and I believed this for a long time … I don’t any more, that well, he was … he really would have voted against Joe McCarthy.
But he could have made the vote clear and made it known. He never did. So I …that’s a disappointment, too. So I…those two characters I’ve sort of shifted.
HEFFNER: You know, this is a very present-minded book …
HEFFNER: … and it is fascinating in its reading because it is about today.
HEFFNER: Is that why you wrote it?
JOHNSON: I wrote the book because of today, yes. I always thought I would go back and look at the McCarthy period, but the genesis for this began with 9/11. And again, an era of enveloping fear in the country. And then we saw how fear can be exploited and it reminded me so much of the McCarthy period as I watched it developing over the period from 9/11 to this very moment. And then I decided to try to link the two periods, look and see what is the connection between then and now?
And I must say, Dick, that when I got into the research for this book more than three years ago, I was stunned at how similar everything was. The same kind of phrases from McCarthy that appear today. The same attacks on… enemies within, giving aid and comfort to the enemy … you’re a godless atheist, your values aren’t real American …you’re UnAmerican, you’re too soft on Communism, we’re soft on terrorism.
And the more I looked at these links between past and present and I see what’s happening now, that was the reason I wrote the book. In the hope that there might be people who didn’t know about the McCarthy period and might be able to draw some of the lessons, if I’ve drawn them properly, that might be useful.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, you, you talk about people who might not know about the McCarthy period. I knew about the McCarthy period, I lived through it. Many of my colleagues were people who were affected …
HEFFNER: … so badly by, by McCarthy himself and certainly by McCarthyism. And yet I was fascinated as I read chapter after chapter of how little I had been made aware of the background that you sketch so well.
HEFFNER: I was telling my wife this morning that I’m ashamed that I knew so little about what was going on while I was active and alert and read the papers. But you tell a story here that is absolutely extraordinary. What am I going to have to know about this period now that I don’t?
JOHNSON: This is the … I think this period we’re going through right now, with President Bush and the tightest controlled White House in my time. I thought, you know, we’ve all gone through … you and I and I’ve gone through all these Presidents since Eisenhower … we’ve seen a progressive use of secrecy, classification, manipulation of the media … all those things have been … but nothing like this, in this Administration.
This is the tightest, most controlled, most secretive, most in…inner-directed, most hostile to …outside opinions, thoughts … doesn’t reach out and I think it’s going to be a terrible story to tell, but an important one. And somebody’s going to do that and it’s going to be a piece of our history we should learn from.
HEFFNER: You going to write it?
JOHNSON: I’m thinking about it. (Laughter) I’m thinking about it. Yeah. I almost have to. I almost feel that I have to because it is one of the, it, it embeds in …entwined in it is everything in our future … what kind of country are we? What kind of values do we really have? Are we a tolerant society? Do we learn from the past? Do we understand the world that exists? Do we allow freedom to flourish?
Yes, we have to protect our self security, absolutely. The test between security and liberty is nevermore important than it is now. But I think it’s a terribly important story to try to understand … what really happened in the background of this Administration?
HEFFNER: But if one were not familiar with American history and were to read your book and to read the background that you sketch, I think one might say, “Well, these Americans have always done this”. Unfair?
JOHNSON: No, it’s not unfair. One of the things that I was trying to point out in, in the book that we’re talking about now, “The Age of Anxiety” is that there is a continuing cycle in the American experience where when fear, great fear from outside seizes the country; it opens the door probably understandably to abuses. And it goes right back, and I mention this, as you know, the Alien and Sedition Acts …
JOHNSON: … when the same kind of terror, people were arrested and thrown in jail and attacks on their, their patriotism … that was about the French Revolution. They were guilty of having “the French stamp”. The same thing happened in our Civil War. The same thing happened after World War I when the Soviet Union came into being and Stalin and Trotsky and so forth and the great fear that Communists were underneath everywhere … going to do us in. And of course, that… there was the…not the threat…when the… same things was true in McCarthyism and the atom bomb and now today. So these are continuing cycles.
What I’ve… always believed and we don’t know the answer to this yet. Always in the past we go through the cycles of fear and repression and reaction and then reform. Then a period of reform.
The public finally gets it right. They see the demagogues; they see the terror for what it was. And we right ourselves and we go into an era of, of reform and better, better politics in our country.
And I’m hoping that the way is open now for a new reform kind of politics. Like FDR and the New Deal. Like the LaFolletes in Wisconsin that McCarthy… defeated. I mean that was a huge … people don’t know who the LaFolletes were … Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt owed a great deal of the reform emphasis… in the 20th century to that pure, pure reform movement in Wisconsin. And, and it was ended with Joe McCarthy.
So I, I kind of think that we’re looking for something authentic, not Liberal, not Conservative, not … not ideological, not hatred, not divisive … that speaks truth to the American people. That speaks truth to power. That shines dark…the bright lights in dark places. That’s what we ought to be doing.
HEFFNER: You sound, as you quoted Ike, himself, saying that if this were continued … to continue … he might consider trying to make that connection …
HEFFNER: … with others.
JOHNSON: Yes. And actually, when I … that’s going back to Ike in this thing, and this book’s not about Ike, but it does, it does affect me a lot because I thought when I read that, when I learned this about Ike … three times saying “I will leave the Republican Party and I’ll go public and try to form a new party in the great middle of American life. Moderate. Sensible. Fair minded, so forth.” And I thought, “Wow, I’m for that. That’s what I’d like to see.”.
And I actually think someone has the opportunity, I don’t know who it is … that the opportunity now exists because so many things have gone wrong. The war in Iraq. The economy. The Katrina disaster, which we’ve seen, which… how the government is filled with cronyism and really despicable events that shouldn’t be. We are not more secure today than we were five years ago after 9/11. Not only more secure…less secure from terrorism attacks abroad, but I think we’re less secure as we saw in Katrina from natural calamities here at home.
That’s the job of a good, fair minded government to… have a system that is fair minded, but also protects us. And you can count on it, you can believe in it. I don’t think we are that way now.
HEFFNER: But, you know, you used a word before, understandably when you were talking about the reactions to the first great terroristic act here … 9/11. How understanding are you of that? You say “understandable”.
JOHNSON: Well, I think …
HEFFNER: When did it become …
JOHNSON: Yeah …
HEFFNER: … not understandable?
JOHNSON: … well, that, that’s a very … that’s an extremely important question. I appreciate that because I think the first act … when you’re attacked … the first time the United States is attacked, indeed, in our history, on our own shores since 1812. Okay. So there’s an understandable sense of horror, shock and rallying behind the President, as the country did.
George Bush’s approval ratings went up to the highest ever recorded in American history. From … he’d lost the election in popular votes, we all know… in that period of time. And … but then, immediately when we created the Homeland Security Department, I don’t know … I didn’t know a person, literally, who knew something about Washington that believed that was a good idea. You stitched together 180,000 people and a huge bureaucracy with… groups across the board that have been around since 1787, have different cultures … and you want something effective, not verbose and cumbersome, and so forth. And then we start…the fear tactics started coming in … red alert, orange alert, looking over shoulders, spy tips on tunnels and…going across anywhere from Manhattan to the Bay Bridge out in San Francisco … you warned about enemies within and the same kinds of phrases.
And then I think quite deliberately, and I am extremely critical of the Bush Administration, I think they exploited fear to gain and retain political power. I think there’s … to me it’s a clear line … the tactics that we saw in, in the 2002 off-year elections, they attacked the Democrats for being weak on terrorism, not strong enough for the country, they couldn’t trust them, the same way Joe McCarthy did … and they even more used the same tactics in the 2004 Presidential election.
Mr. Kerry allowed himself, I don’t make any brief for Mr. Kerry, to be demonized, to be depreciated, to be defamed, with the smear votes, the smearing on the swift boat ads and so forth. That his medals were dishonorable and he wasn’t a good American. And the same phrases, he gave aid and comfort to the enemy. That’s what Joe McCarthy said 50 years ago.
And they made the same attacks on John Kerry and he never recovered. And it was his fault … in many ways he wouldn’t fight back. Part of the legacy of the Democrats is that they have been cowered by these attacks and then the media’s changed and so … and so a lot of things. Yes, I, I think it … the initial fear was understandable to me, but right away if you believe in a free press and democracy, leaders that, that examine and look … hold people accountable … none of us did our jobs.
HEFFNER: Okay … “none of us did our jobs”. What do you say when someone asks you, “What about the American people? What about those who were for McCarthy? Who accepted McCarthyism and who today accept and embrace what you deplore, as a continuation of McCarthyism?”
JOHNSON: Well, I, I, I say that I deplore it, too. And I believe that we’ve got to sort of stand up and… make clear why it’s dangerous. Make clear why the abuses are not American in that sense. Make clear that there are better ways to deal with our problems then just defaming and dividing us and therefore nothing really works in the body politic.
I think that there is a block in this country, to this day still, I … probably about 30% that sees McCarthy as … or McCarthy type as a hero. I mean in fact … Anne Coulter the writer from the Right, has a book out called “Treason”. And she says, she lays 50 years of treason … the reason we’re in trouble today in 2005 is because it’s been 50 years of Liberal treason, going back to every Democratic leader from then to now and Joe McCarthy is the hero of the age. Well …
HEFFNER: He had 20 years … and she has 50 years.
JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s right. And so I mean … I, I think well … okay … she has the right to be wrong. She has the right to make these outlandish charges. I hope that we can speak back and say, “Wait a minute, this is absolute nonsense, it’s venomous, it’s untrue … your … so forth and so on. That’s what I’m talking about. I think that we, we … and I am very critical … as you know … I grew up in the press, I love the press, and maybe when you love something, the more you know it, the more critical you are of it.
But we haven’t done a good job in these last five years of holding the government accountable. Weapons of mass destruction. The McCarthyistic tactics in the campaign of 2002, 2004. To this day, the Scooter Libby indictments. McCarthyistic tactics. You leak information to the press secretly to defame and destroy critics. That’s what it’s all about.
HEFFNER: How do you explain your profession’s role?
JOHNSON: Well, I wish I could because I think there’s a … I don’t want to give a blanket condemnation of all in the press. There has been some wonderful reporting in the last five years among the mainstream media.
But I think one thing has happened. The red light there (points to camera), the television we’re talking on now, is … has become a part of the particular cable and the talk radio and the divisiveness and the continuing … and as that has had more influence, has grown in power, grown in influence and the shrinking and diminution of not only the conventional network telecasts, but the newspapers, also, cutting back and trouble … don’t have an audience, and somehow we lost the idea of why we’re there.
I mean the reason the American press … I’m talking about the written press, not the electronic press was given, unlike any other part of … institution in our country … a right to be wrong. A right to challenge … “Congress shall make no law”.
We can do anything we want. We forgot that. That’s what we’re there for. If we don’t do that we’re not doing our jobs and we’re doing a disservice to the American people.
It’s different with television because there it isn’t … that’s not covered by the First Amendment, per se. I mean that’s, that’s electronic … somehow there’s a … you can slander people on television, but, but it’s … you don’t have this blanket sort of… ability.
HEFFNER: Haynes … there are many people in this medium who would challenge you on that.
JOHNSON: Well, I, I hope so. I hope so. I mean I think the First Amendment really should apply to all of us in this thing. But I, I think the way Congress … abridging freedom of the press … well, the press, press is … yes, it’s more than a written press, it should apply to the … and where it doesn’t apply today … neither one … the age of the Internet, the bloggers and so forth …which can do very good work and also can be very defamatory. There’s no standard now, legally, if someone defames you on, in a blog, or if they actually … and they’ve done this, used correct information that’s useful to expose things that the press isn’t doing. That’s very useful. But … so we, we’re going to have to grapple with how we deal with the, the line of what’s fair commentary or not.
HEFFNER: In terms of your analysis … and we have a minute left … in terms of your analysis, you can’t be particularly sanguine because there doesn’t seem to be anything that would indicate that the war of … all against all that is generated in part by the beady red eye.
HEFFNER: Is going to disappear.
JOHNSON: I, I do think. I … maybe it’s naiveté and foolishness on my part. I took great comfort in the reaction of the collective American media, including the cable, including the talk radio and all the rest, over the calamity of Katrina. They were then raising the kinds of question, across the board that they have not raised in five years. Demanding of the government, “well how did this happen?” … at all levels, Mr. Bush, his cronies and so forth at the White House and I … I’m hopeful that this is a kind of new birth of independence and courage. But, maybe I’m naïve.
HEFFNER: Well, I’ll hope you’re not naïve. Thanks for joining me today, Haynes Johnson, and thanks for writing “The Age of Anxiety”, it’s one of the most important books I’ve read in a long, long time.
JOHNSON: Oh, that makes me feel … thank you so much … because I…you write books, you hope people take you seriously. And what you said, pleases me no end.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.