Confronting Joe McCarthy, Then and Now

The recent death of a former Air Force officer brings back a familiar fight for freedom

One of the rewards of being a reporter is getting to know people you'd normally not be able to meet. And sometimes, after writing stories on them, the relationship continues. That's how I became friends with Malcolm X, John Cardinal O'Connor, Justice William Brennan—and Fred Friendly, my mentor on the First Amendment. He and Edward R. Murrow ended Joe McCarthy's reign of fear, and Fred later developed a way to shine a constitutional light on Joe McCarthy's hunt for domestic terrorism suspects.

Fred Friendly died in 1998 at the age of 82, but he was back in the news in November in the obituaries of a man that he and Murrow "rescued" from McCarthy. (Friendly produced Murrow's See It Now TV series.)

To many younger Americans, McCarthy—the destroyer of the lives of "subversive unAmericans"—may be a dim figure, but since we are again living in a "culture of fear," the story of how the sword of the First Amendment cut him down is acutely contemporary.

On November 19, Milo Radulovich died. Radulovich's story was told in the 2005 movie Goodnight, and Good Luck, in which George Clooney played Fred Friendly.

In 1953, Radulovich, an Air Force Reserve lieutenant, was considered a security risk because his father and sister were supposedly Communist sympathizers. In October of that year, Murrow and Friendly—on CBS's See It Now—broadcast the first direct, documented attack on the "guilt by association" tactics of McCarthy.

As The New York Times's Douglas Martin reported in his November 21 obituary of Radulovich, since Alcoa, the sponsor of See It Now, had contracts with the military, jittery CBS brass refused to promote the program, so Fred and Murrow took it upon themselves to pay $1,500 for an ad in the Times.

Five weeks after that broadcast, Radulovich was reinstated by the secretary of the Air Force. "[It was] the first time," Fred Friendly says, "any of us appreciated the power of television." In 1998, the state of Michigan commemorated that stinging documentary with a plaque: "It is generally believed that the program was the beginning of the end for the McCarthy era."

Three months after the Radulovich program, See It Now took on the high-riding Joe McCarthy himself. I watched that show with special interest because I figured that because of the anti- McCarthy petitions I'd signed and some radio programs I'd done in Boston, I might eventually get summoned to meet the arch-patriot himself.

But after the See It Now exposure of the worst Red Scare since the 1920's, McCarthy—following a turbulent Senate investigation—was censured by the entire Senate in December 1954. A heavy drinker in his prime, McCarthy, increasingly sodden, died in 1957.

Fred Friendly went on to become the president of CBS News, but two years later he walked out of the building—and his job—in fury. On that day, Democratic Senator William Fulbright was to chair the first committee investigation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Friendly scheduled it, but his bosses had aired reruns of I Love Lucyinstead.

Fred embodied integrity—and no one ever questioned it. From then on, he became a professor of journalism at Columbia University and embarked on a mission to challenge Americans and others around the world to actually think for themselves on deeply controversial issues. "Television," he told me, "began as a way to educate people, not just entertain them."

Before retiring in 1993, he produced 600 more seminars, as he called them, with more than 70 of them on American public television. The one with the most impact was a continually exciting 13-week series, The Constitution: That Delicate Balance—on which Supreme Court justices, journalists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, legislators, law professors, police commissioners, scientists, and a range of other advocates jousted, sometimes very forcefully.

On camera, Fred would introduce each program, saying: "Our job is not to make up anyone's mind, but to open minds—to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking."

He invited me to be a part of several of those tournaments. During one, there I was—without a law degree—arguing with Justice Antonin Scalia. (To paraphrase from a nursery rhyme from my childhood: "A cat can disagree with a king.")

Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times civil-liberties columnist—sorely missed on those pages these days—said then: "Fred has found a way to use [television] that nobody else has."

I wish Fred were here to read Lewis's new book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate (Basic Books), available in January, the most riveting history of the First Amendment that I've ever read—including those I've written. The book strengthens Fred's legacy, and I've suggested to the publisher that it be made available to schools, starting with secondary schools, because the No Child Left Behind Act leaves no room for teaching children who we are as Americans.

Brian Lamb—whose C-SPAN is the most consistent educational tool on self-government that Americans have—could also build on Fred's foundation of active Americanism by producing his version of The Constitution: That Delicate Balance at a time in our history when that source of our liberties—very much including the separation of powers—has never been more endangered.

Imagine participating as a viewer in confrontations pitting Dick Cheney and the heads of the FBI and the CIA against such constitutional warriors as law professor and columnist Jonathan Turley and journalists Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan—or witnessing arguments between warring legislators from both sides of the Congressional aisles and so-called "ordinary" citizens drawn by these encounters into discovering, or rediscovering, for themselves that the Constitution is indeed a living document, and, like all living things, of uncertain morality.

Since global terrorism will be a presence in American lives way beyond this generation—and since severe authoritarian precedents for future presidents have been set by the Bush-Cheney regime—that delicate balance of the Constitution could become even more fragile in the years ahead.

Fred Friendly believed—and proved—that with the counter-weapon of information, it is possible to make Americans undergo "the agony of decision-making"—on whether we will remain free—so intensely that we can escape only by realizing that Thomas Jefferson is right: Only the people can be relied on to defend our liberties.

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