The Politician, the Playwright, and the Saga Known as McCarthyism

You’d think the credibility of a chicken farmer who became a lawyer who was so bad at his job that he had to supplement his income by gambling might have been seriously questioned when he ran for public office. You’d be wrong.

Instead, compulsive liar and all-around scumbag Joseph R. McCarthy conned his way all the way up to the United States senate, where 57 years ago today he was censured for the tactics he employed in the name of what became known as “McCarthyism.”

Now sure, McCarthy was an alcoholic and a hypocrite. And sure, McCarthy made false claims about the political allegiances of almost anyone who crossed him (and many who didn’t). And sure, he ruined the careers of numerous people from politicians to Hollywood filmmakers, including some who eventually committed suicide. What we’re forgetting is the one great cultural contribution McCarthy made before his political career took a nosedive and he ingloriously drank himself to death: he helped inspire America’s greatest playwright to pen one of his seminal works.

In 1952, Arthur Miller wrote the allegorical classic The Crucible, a play that sends up McCarthyism through its depiction of the Salem witch trials. Obviously, Miller had reason to detest McCarthy’s stunts, as he found himself held in contempt of Congress and blacklisted along with over 300 other artists for taking part in supposed “communist” and “un-American” activities.

According to the BBC, the playwright’s lawyer, Joseph Rauh, claimed, “that the timing of the hearing – just before his marriage to Marilyn Monroe – would ensure maximum publicity and humiliation for the writer.” As well, Miller stated that he believed that his refusal to let influential members of the House of Representatives take a photo with Marilyn Monroe led to the charges.

Eventually, after battling in court for two years, Miller’s name was cleared and it was McCarthy who wound up disgraced.

The moral of this story is twofold. First, never get on the bad side of a brilliant writer. And secondly, think twice about electing a chicken farmer turned failed lawyer turned alcoholic gambler to a high-level office. It might, just might, not work out as well as you expect.

-Mike Crisolago