As many know, Ike was an Army general and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Tail Gunner Joe may not be so familiar unless you're from his hometown of Appleton, Wis., or you're old enough to remember the uber-controversial Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, (R-Wis).
Tail Gunner Joe was what McCarthy supporters called the burly war veteran. He's also the guy we can thank for the term McCarthyism, which is another way of saying Salem Witch Trials. His congressional hearings into alleged communists in government was an intense national debate of the 1950s. Many on the right applauded his aggressive outing of the dreaded "commie conspiracy." Many others, including veteran news-guy Edward R. Morrow, saw McCarthy as a dangerous junk-yard demagogue whose wild and unfounded charges did nothing but destroy people's lives without ever finding one so-called fifth-column Communist spy in the government.
As a result of the recent Elevating Ike piece on The Huffington Post, several readers report they cannot forgive President Eisenhower's moral and political failure to speak out and repudiate McCarthy. Ike, they claim, did not want to offend the Senator's cheering supporters, also know as the GOP's conservative base. This has been a prevailing negative take on Eisenhower for years.
That is NOT how it went down with Ike, according to Jim Newton's excellent new audiobook and print biography, Eisenhower: The White House Years. Ike did not want the presidency diminished by tangling with McCarthy -- think "gutter." Worried that the senator was gaming for the presidency, Ike vowed to deny him. "He's the last guy in the world to ever get there, if I have anything to say about it," he said. He continued to avoid even using McCarthy's name, instead issuing vague references to "book burning." But this just wasn't enough to satisfy the president's critics. What people did not know at the time was how Ike actually did to handle the McCarthy problem.
Throughout his presidency, Ike often used covert action to get rid of pesky enemies. Iran and Guatemala's leaders both lost their countries due to Ike's secret CIA operations. The Cuban Bay of Pigs operation was hatched in the Eisenhower administration. With McCarthy causing so much embarrassment for the president, Ike played his hidden hand. He deftly "encouraged" the Republican-controlled senate to hold the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings. The country was riveted by them. In the dawn of TV and its unknown impact, McCarthy's scowling 5-o'clock-shadowed face, his arid, unrelenting bully tactics did not play well on our black-and-white TVs. Ike understood what others did not: Exposing McCarthy on television would do McCarthy in. And it did. The ugly, revealing televised hearings of 1954 essentially ended the senator's influence and a few years later he was gone -- literally. He died three years later. His No. 1 staffer, Roy Cohen, went on to have his own, uhhh... combative career and ended up as a starring character in Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasy on National Themes.
To Eisenhower's critics, the way he handled the whole McCarthy affair may have its roots in lessons learned on the plains of West Point and the battle fields of WW II: sometimes a flanking movement is better than a frontal assault.