Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy
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Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy

By:  Larry Tye

Narrated by:  Ben Jaeger-Thomas

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The definitive biography of the most dangerous demagogue in American history, based on first-ever review of his personal and professional papers, medical and military records, and recently unsealed transcripts of his closed-door Congressional hearings

In the long history of American demagogues, from Huey Long to Donald Trump, never has one man caused so much damage in such a short time as Senator Joseph McCarthy. We still use “McCarthyism” to stand for outrageous charges of guilt by association, a weapon of polarizing slander. From 1950 to 1954, McCarthy destroyed many careers and even entire lives, whipping the nation into a frenzy of paranoia, accusation, loyalty oaths, and terror. When the public finally turned on him, he came crashing down, dying of alcoholism in 1957. Only now, through bestselling author Larry Tye’s exclusive look at the senator’s records, can the full story be told.

Demagogue is a masterful portrait of a human being capable of immense evil, yet beguiling charm. McCarthy was a tireless worker and a genuine war hero. His ambitions knew few limits. Neither did his socializing, his drinking, nor his gambling. When he finally made it to the Senate, he flailed around in search of an agenda and angered many with his sharp elbows and lack of integrity. Finally, after three years, he hit upon anti-communism. By recklessly charging treason against everyone from George Marshall to much of the State Department, he became the most influential and controversial man in America. His chaotic, meteoric rise is a gripping and terrifying object lesson for us all. Yet his equally sudden fall from fame offers reason for hope that, given the rope, most American demagogues eventually hang themselves.

Available Resources

  • Format: Audiobook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358316619

  • ISBN-10: 0358316618

  • Price: $29.95

  • Publication Date: 07/07/2020

Larry Tye

Larry Tye

LARRY TYE is the best-selling author of Bobby Kennedy and Satchel, as well as Superman, The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails, and coauthor, with Kitty Dukakis, of Shock. Previously an award-winning reporter and national writer at the Boston Globe and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, he now runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship. He lives in Massachusetts.
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  • reviews

    Featured on Fresh Air

    A Christian Science Monitor best nonfiction book of 2020 

    An Amazon best history book of 2020  


    “The fullest account yet of the crusading junior senator from Wisconsin...the rigor of his research ensures he goes far beyond the caricature to give us a portrait of nuance and depth.”—Wall Street Journal 


    “Tye captures ‘Low Blow Joe’ in all his shambolic ingloriousness . . . The result is an epic expose that . . . will leave [readers] shaking their heads over the rise and fall of the greatest demagogue in American history, with the possible exception of the current White House incumbent.” 

    The Boston Globe 


    “’Demagogue’ does an impressive job of shedding new light on Joe McCarthy, but the more light is shed, the more repulsive he appears. ‘The more we learn,’ Tye writes, ‘the fewer heroes this story has.’”—Christian Science Monitor

    “Tye has produced a compelling and rich biography that will become the new authoritative text on its subject.”—Los Angeles Review of Books 


    “…vivid chronicle of the ascent, reign, and decline of Joseph McCarthy.”—National Book Review 


    “Demagogue is a beautifully written, richly researched tragedy, a morality tale in three acts. In the end, it proves that most demagogues, like the legendary emperor, usually have no clothes. And it’s not a pretty sight to behold.”—New York Journal of Books 


    “An interesting, readable account…new material from McCarthy’s personal archive add interesting and colorful detail to what has previously been known.”—Life and Liberty 


    “Tantalizing.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 


    “In an age when we see the resurrection of Senator Joe McCarthy’s tactics—exaggeration and lies, guilt by association, the smearing of political opponents, and above all the acquiescence of enablers who know better—Larry Tye’s Demagogue is a gripping, essential read. Drawing on records newly unsealed after sixty years, Tye explains how McCarthy’s fear-mongering caught fire, offering timely insight into the rise of bullies and what is required to defeat them.” 

    —Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and New York Times bestselling author of The Education of an Idealist 


    “For many contemporary readers, Joseph McCarthy is a done and dusted relic for the history books, but Tye (Bobby Kennedy, 2016) brings him back to ferocious life . . . Tye is an even-handed reporter, tracking the truth of stories advanced by both McCarthy's devotees and detractors . . . This is a must-read biography for anyone fascinated by American history, and every reader will blanch at its events' resemblances to today's fraught political conflicts.” 

    Booklist, STARRED  


    “Larry Tye’s Demagogue nails the defining biography of Joe McCarthy. I grew up a Cold War kid watching it all on television. I thought I knew it all, but Tye makes it real. To understand Donald Trump, you have to understand Joe McCarthy first, and Tye’s your guide.” 

    —John Kerry, former US Secretary of State 


    “Tye has written a fabulous, can't-put-down examination of one of the most dangerous politicians in American history. But Demagogue is more than a biography—it's a warning of the peril we are facing.” 

    — William Cohen, former US Secretary of Defense 


    “Written in a straightforward, judicious style…a definitive biography that will stand the test of time.” 

    Library Journal 


    “[A] sure-handed account . . . searing and informative portrait of [Senator Joseph McCarthy] and his specific brand of self-aggrandizing demagoguery.” 

    Publishers Weekly 


    “Meaty narrative . . . a timely examination of a would-be savior whose name remains a byword for demagoguery.” 

    Kirkus Reviews 


    “As the demagogue now in the Oval Office—mentored personally by McCarthy's unscrupulous disciple Roy Cohn—asserts monarchical authority, it has never been more urgent to have Larry Tye's definitive answers to the questions: How did Joe McCarthy get power in America?  And how was he brought down?" 

    —Daniel Ellsberg, nuclear defense analyst and author of The Doomsday Machine  


    “Tye takes us, step by step, as one of America’s most dangerous right-wing populists learns how to use fear and deception to vault his way into power and threaten our country’s most basic rights. The lessons for today are all too clear.” 

    —Steven Levitsky, coauthor of How Democracies Die 


    “This well-crafted, deeply researched study of Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism reveals the awful consequences of demagoguery in America, and its toll on our democracy. Tye provides not only untold history, but an essential primer for the times of Trump. We cannot ignore the lessons revealed in Larry Tye’s narrative. 

    —John W. Dean, former Nixon White House Counsel  


    “Larry Tye's deeply reported Demagogue accomplishes two essential tasks at once. As first-rate biographies do, it lifts Joe McCarthy from stereotype to vivid flesh, while also using the past to illuminate the present. 

    —David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father 


    “Fueled by a trove of newly uncovered documents, Demagogue charts the legacy of Joe McCarthy, reviled master of the political smear, through the malign tutelage of McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn and directly to Donald J. Trump. A must-read.” 

    —Richard Ben-Veniste, assistant Watergate special prosecutor and author of The Emperor’s New Clothes 


    "Larry Tye's razor smart and riveting account is a timely, and dismaying, reminder of how hard it is for American politics to turn on a demagogue who exploits our fears. Joe McCarthy left few profiles in political courage in his wake."  

    —Tim Naftali, former director of the Nixon Presidential Library and coauthor of Impeachment: An American History 


    “There couldn’t be a more fitting time for Larry Tye to revisit the history of Senator Joe McCarthy. Based on new archival findings, Demagogue tells the story of one of the notorious senators in congressional history, a legislator who destroyed lives, shattered reputations, and damaged institutions until he eventually did himself in.” 

    —Julian Zelizer, author of Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party

  • excerpts

    THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT America’s love affair with bullies. 

         Front and center is “Low Blow” Joe McCarthy, one of the most reviled figures in US history. It’s not often that a man’s name becomes an ism, in this case a synonym for reckless accusation, guilt by association, fear-mongering, and political double-dealing. In the early 1950s, the senator from Wisconsin promised America a holy war against a Communist “conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” While the conspiracy and infamy claims were a stretch, the body count was measurable: a TV broadcaster, a government engineer, current and former US senators, and incalculable others who committed suicide to escape McCarthy and his warriors; hundreds more whose careers and reputations he crushed; and the hundreds of thousands he browbeat into a tongue-tied silence. His targets all learned the futility of taking on a tyrant who recognized no restraints and would do anything— anything— to win. 

         “To those of you who say that you do not like the rough tactics—any farm boy can tell you that there is no dainty way of clubbing the fangs off a rattler or killing a skunk . . . It has been a bare-knuckle job. It will continue as such,” the farm-bred soldier turned senator delighted in telling audiences about his hunt for pinkos and Reds. “I am afraid I will have to blame some of the roughness in fighting the enemy to my training in the Marine Corps. We weren’t taught to wear lace panties and fight with lace hankies.” 

         But this is more than the biography of a single bully. A uniquely American strain of demagoguery has pulsed through the nation’s veins from its founding days. Although Senator McCarthy’s drastic tactics and ethical indifference make him an extraordinary case, he was hardly an original. He owed much to a lineup of zealots and dodgers who preceded him—from Huey “The Kingfish” Long to Boston’s “Rascal King” mayor James Michael Curley and Michigan’s Jew-baiting radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin—and he in turn became the exemplar for nearly all the bullies who followed. Alabama governor George Wallace, Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan, and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke tapped the McCarthy model, appealing to their countrymen’s simmering fears of imagined subversions even as they tried to escape the label of McCarthyism. All had big plans and glorified visions in which they played the crowning roles. 

         Now that we at last have access to the full sweep of the records on Joe McCarthy’s transgressions, we can see that his rise and reign also go a long way toward explaining the astonishing ascension of former President Donald J. Trump. While some seek comfort in the belief that Trump’s election was an aberration, the truth is that he was the latest in a bipartisan queue of fanatics and hate peddlers who have tapped into America’s deepest insecurities. In lieu of solutions, demagogues point fingers. Attacked, they aim a wrecking ball at their assailants. When one charge against a manufactured enemy is exposed as hollow, they lob a fresh bombshell. If the news is bad, they blame the newsmen. McCarthy was neither the first nor the last, but he was the archetype, and Trump owed much to his playbook. 

         The playbook invariably is the key. It transformed Joe McCarthy from a crank to one of the most menacing men in modern civilization. Armed with a similar blueprint, Donald Trump rose from sideshow to contender to commander in chief. Neither was sure of the formula in advance—bullies seldom are, but they can sense in their bones how to keep the pot simmering and know when they achieve a critical mass. Suddenly and shockingly their scattershot bile is gaining traction and lacerating countless noncombatants. Americans, or enough of them to matter, actually believed that McCarthy had the list he claimed of 205 Communists lurking at the State Department. And that Trump’s Mexican wall would make the United States safe. Was it simply through endless, mind-numbing repetition that these fictions became facts? 

         Candidate Trump boasted to supporters in 2016, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Sixty-two years before, polling pioneer George Gallup penned a chillingly similar prediction about Joe’s minions: “Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, they would probably still go along with him.” 

         At the time when McCarthy drafted his poisonous script, few people knew the Wisconsin native’s full story. America got its best look at the single-minded senator in his public and prodigiously publicized hearings, when he targeted alleged Soviet infiltration of the Foreign Service, the Voice of America, and, in a step too far, the mighty US military. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” the Army’s special counsel famously asked him on live television in the spring of 1954, echoing what much of the nation was thinking by then. Americans would have been asking a lot sooner, and reached a quicker tipping point, if they had witnessed the secret hearings McCarthy was holding. It turns out that only a third of his conspiracy hunting happened in public sessions; evidence of the rest, filling almost nine thousand pages of transcripts, was kept under lock and key for half a century. 

         Those records, in 2003 unveiled by McCarthy’s successors and never before closely examined, reveal in disturbing detail that when the subcommittee doors slammed shut, Chairman McCarthy came unhinged in a way unimaginable to most Americans. He ceased even pretending to care about the rights of the accused, whom he summarily declared guilty. He held one-man hearings, in violation of long-standing Senate tradition. When he was absent, his poorly trained, sophomoric staffers leapt in to badger witnesses on his behalf. It is true that he ferreted out a handful of leftists, but most were indictable more for youthful idealism and political naïveté than for the sedition and treason of which they were accused. He searched in vain for a big fish—his own Alger Hiss or Julius Rosenberg—and targeted fellow lawmakers who dared challenge his shakedowns. And he grew nastier still after lunch, where he routinely washed down his hamburger and raw onion with whiskey. Here, in executive session, when he thought nobody was looking, this snarling senator showed his unvarnished essence. 

         If that is the darker-than-we-knew side of Joseph Raymond McCarthy, there is also an untold tale of the beguiling charm with which he seduced the Badger State and much of America. Snippets of the private Joe—the relentless yet riveting sycophant, incongruously generous to those he had just publicly upbraided—have filtered out over the decades, but these generally came from unreliable sources bent on either shielding or savaging the senator. Now we have his unscripted writings and correspondence, military records and wartime medical charts, love letters, financial files, academic transcripts, and box after box of other personal and professional documents. Joe’s widow donated them sixty years ago to his alma mater, Marquette University, and they were made available, for the first time, to this author. 


Available Resources

  • Format: Audiobook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358316619

  • ISBN-10: 0358316618

  • Price: $29.95

  • Publication Date: 07/07/2020