May 15, 2020

FTV: David Brinkley – Part 2


     The late David Brinkley was not one of my go to sources for information in my formative years.  My father watched Walter Cronkite each night when WLUC-TV 6 was a CBS network affiliate (and the only channel we received).  Even when cable TV entered the picture, our household relied on Uncle Walter for both the evening news and bulletins whenever important events happened to interrupt the normal daily broadcasts (heralded by, “This is a Special Report from CBS News”).  As stated in Part 1 of David Brinkley, I found his memoirs a vault of information about the early days of radio and television broadcasting.  By the time Brinkley’s book hit the 1950s, the history buff in me found even more fascinating stories about life in America just before I was born and during the time when I was too young to really take much notice.  As usual, Brinkley’s wry sense of humor added color to a world that was still largely broadcasting in black and white.

     When I was teaching a unit on Dendrology, or the study of trees, one of my favorite experiments used with seventh graders was called ‘Apple Pie Chemistry’.  Using my mother’s old recipe (christened ‘Grandma Irene’s Crumbly Apple Pie’ in the instructions), teams of three to four students were provided all the materials needed to make a dish that wasn’t really a pie in the traditional sense, but you get the picture.  There were two separate steps:  Peel, slice, and spice the apples with sugar and cinnamon, and then make the topping.  Half the fun of the whole experiment was having groups ask, “What if we mixed all of the ingredients together before we read the directions?  Can we separate them and start again?”  In my mother’s recipe, one of the ingredients used in the topping was listed as ‘oleo’.  None of my students had a clue what this was.  When shown a stick of ‘margarine’, I explained that ‘oleo’ was just another name for it.  David Brinkley provided more information about this mysterious ‘oleo – margerine’ stuff. 

     According to Brinkley, he was the host of what he described as a ‘stultifying’ radio show on NBC back in the 1950s.  America United brought in four representatives, one each representing the point of view of labor, business, agriculture, and government.  To Brinkley, he was moderating a terrible show that only succeeded in making each participant dig in their heels while trying to prove that their point of view was ‘the right one.’  The show was so bad that even Brinkley’s wife would not tune in.  It certainly didn’t provide any proof that Americans were United in anythingThe one example he cited was the battle over ‘oleomargarine’, a word combining what I previously thought were simply different names for the same item.

     As Brinkley explained, when oleomargarine was first marketed, it was white like lard.  The dairy lobby worked feverishly to prevent manufacturers from dying it yellow, reasoning that the city slickers who knew nothing about farming would think it was the same as butter.  Manufacturers had compensated by selling each brick of oleomargarine with a packet of powdered dye that, with a considerable amount of time and effort, could be mixed with the lard colored brick (a process that usually left orange streaks in the final product).  The government representative on the show about this hot button topic was a congressman from Wisconsin who stated, “It’s fake butter is what it is,” and he sputtered angrily about ‘margarine fraud’ being perpetrated on the non-farming public.  It is hard to imagine that this issue consumed the lawmakers in Washington for over a month with Congress finally ruling that factories could indeed color oleomargarine yellow.  As Brinkley puts it, “Another threat to the survival of democratic government was met and surmounted, even though I obviously was too thick headed to see how the color of margarine was any of the government’s business.  I still don’t.”

     The other topic with a Wisconsin connection that I knew little about was the sad tale of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  I have seen film clips of the outrageous hearings he conducted about the whole ‘Red Menace’ affair.  As to why McCarthy thought there were communists hiding under every rock, I was not aware.  Again, Brinkley filled me in how and why this whole sad episode began and ended.  Brinkley’s sister, Mary, worked in McCarthy’s Washington office and he admits that they simply could not discuss the topic as it unfolded.  Mary would tend to defend her boss and Brinkley found it better to just avoid the topic rather than sow the seeds of family disharmony.  David said that when McCarthy died, Mary turned down multiple offers to write a book, but she was candid in providing him with more insight into that period.

     The whole witch hunt can be traced back to a speech Senator McCarthy gave to the Wheeling, West Virginia Republican Women’s Club in 1950.  During his speech, McCarthy held up a piece of paper and announced, “I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five – a list of names that are known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department.”  After the Senator passed away, Brinkely asked, “What did he have in his hand [during this speech]?”  Mary said, “He had a few scribbled notes to use in his speech.  Nothing about Communists.  Mostly about housing for war veterans.  That was his big interest when he first came to Washington.”  “Did he have two hundred and five names?”  “No.”  “Where did he get that number?”  “He made it up.”  

     It was true that McCarthy had made housing for returning WWII vets his pet project when elected.  According to a respected newspaper columnist of the time, Joseph Alsop, “[I] had known McCarthy first as the big, raw-boned pride and joy of the real estate lobby, which is where he found his friends when he first came to Washington. . . McCarthy adored attention and as a politician had tried to get it several different ways.”  When the headlines reported his Wheeling speech, McCarthy “was nearly insane with excitement.  He clutched the newspapers and ran around his Senate office shouting, ‘I’ve got it.  I’ve got it!”   As Brinkly surmised, “He though he had the issue he needed to make him into a great political figure and guarantee his Senate seat forever.”  McCarthy, not one to accept criticism, reacted to Alsop’s opinions like a second grader on the playground.  McCarthy called him “All Slop” from that point on.

     Brinkley’s own view of McCarthy was summed up in a few brief lines:  “In forty years of sustained effort [McCarthy] made his name stand for (1) a United States senator and (2) the Grand Champion American Liar.  In Washington, a city already well supplied with your ordinary, everyday liars, nobody could lie like McCarthy.  While he was deeply unimpressive in manner, appearance, and speech, he lied with an energy and determination so intense that some otherwise skeptical people were led to believe him.”  As for the anti-Communist hearings, “It was only one lie after another, and almost everyone in Washington knew it, including most of his colleagues in the Senate, but they were so afraid of him and of his noisy band of supporters that they had long since run for cover, protecing their precious seats. . . in fear of unpredictable and unwelcome reactions in their home states, in fear that a senator attacking [McCarthy] might lose his seat.”

     Once he found his cause, McCarthy started to build momentum when Julius and Ethel Rosenburg were tried and executed for espionage on Moscow’s behalf.  Once Klaus Fuchs was found to be sending details of the atomic bomb to Moscow (unlike the Rosenbergs, he escaped to East Germany), McCarthy used this kernel of truth to expand his campaign.  With no further proof, he told his willing audience that the U.S. Government was crawling with Communists and launched into his new role as the sole protector of the American way.  Only he could save us all  from the Red Menace.  Mary told David that McCarthy spent time every day in his office sipping whiskey while reading aloud the newspaper accounts of his ‘work’.  When Brinkley states, “For a junior senator from a small town in Wisconsin, it was a heady time, and his exuberance swept him near to delirium and occasionally beyond.  Slowly, slowly, American democracy worked.  As layer after layer of McCarthy’s lies were peeled away like an onion, revealing one outrage after another, his friends in the Senate began to see that they had been deceived, lied to, and McCarthy’s support started to fade.”

     It was a mild-mannered Republican Senator from Vermont, Ralph Flanders, who finally introduced a resolution to curb McCarthy’s witch hunt, but the Senate didn’t confront him for the obvious lies he had spread.  Instead, the Senate responded to Flander’s resolution by forming a six-member committee to investigate his ‘abuse of witnesses’.  Joseph Welsh, who would later play the presiding judge in the movie Anatomy of a Murder, served as the chief counsel in the Army – McCarthy hearings.  He confronted McCarthy’s minions and demanded a list of the 130 names they claimed were subversives working in defense plants.  McCarthy dodged the request by telling Welsh that he should investigate a young man named Fred Fisher who had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, “The mouthpiece of the Communist Party.”  Welsh did but found nothing in Fisher’s past relating to the McCarthy proceedings.  They agreed in a private meeting between Welsh and McCarthy that Fisher would not be questioned.  Still, McCarthy ruthlessly attacked Fisher by name in the open hearing.   Welsh, chided the Senator for what he termed his ‘reckless cruelty’ asking McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, Sir?  At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”  

     These show hearings were conducted by McCarthy alone with a couple of aids and were not official Senate proceedings. They were calculated grandstand displays designed to fan the flames of his own agenda and stroke his own ego.  Instead of condemning his actions, the Senate chose the softer, slap on the wrist motion to ‘censure’ him.  As the committee assembled, the undeterred McCarthy stated in a speech, “Now the Communists have extended their tentacles into the United States Senate to make these committee members their unwitting hand-maidens.”  North Carolina’s highly respected Judge and Senator Sam Ervin responded to this nonsense, saying, “Senator McCarthy flees now to his customary refuge – his claim that he is the symbol of resistance to Communist subversion and any senator who fails to bow and scrape to him is doing the work of the Communist party.”  So ended Senator Joseph McCarthy’s fifteen minutes of fame.

     McCarthy’s influence and reign of terror faded into the history books.  “Having never found even one Communist not already known, the whiskey got to him, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver,” according to Brinkley.  The toll this unprincipled witch hunt took on American society and those who were dragged into the deep water by this rip tide of anti-Communist terror mongering (extending into the Hollywood Blacklists and beyond) is lamentable.

     David Brinkley’s opinions and commentaries were always short and to the point.  His knack for relating historical events without the need for self-aggrandizement would set him apart from some of the talking heads one sees on the news today.  As for his own credentials as a newsman, his book cover notes that his career spanned, “11 presidents, 4 wars, 22 political conventions, 1 moon landing, 3 assassinations, 2,000 weeks of news and other stuff on television, and 18 years of growing up in North Carolina.”  

     As a southerner reporting the struggles endemic to the fight for equal rights for African Americans, he was vilified as a turncoat (and worse).  Many of the southern stations threatened to pull their stations from the NBC network because of Brinkley’s reporting during the Civil Rights era (few, if any, did).  To counter his ‘northern reporting bias’, many southern stations hired their own newscasters who went on right after The Huntley-Brinkley Report to explain all of the areas in which NBC had slanted their news to make things sound worse than they were.  Long serving Senator Jesse Helms was one of these ‘point-counter point’ reporters before he ran for office.  That Brinkley could report these racially charged events (and receive plenty of death threats) with a clear eye reminds us that the reporter’s job is to report the news.  

     Those making news can only wish that the press would simply swallow one-sided explanations for their actions and parrot a single party line.  One can only speculate what Brinkley would have to say about the current Washington pressroom wranglings.  Good night, David.

Top Piece Video:  A Day in the Life by The Beatles . . . hey, it mentions the news!