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American Album

Every year, disciples of 'Tail Gunner Joe' gather to pay homage to a man they insist was a visionary.

May 08, 1989|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

APPLETON, Wis. — The grave sits on a picturesque bluff overlooking the Fox River, marked by a large but plain stone that does little to call attention to itself.

Still, a crowd of 100 or so disciples found their way to the spot Sunday, lured from across Wisconsin by a deep conviction that was perhaps best summed up in the sign worn by Johanna Baars across her chest: "JOE MCCARTHY WAS RIGHT."

"Those of us who were his friends know how devoted Joe McCarthy was to the truth," Father Cletus Healy, a Roman Catholic priest, told the gathering. "Unfortunately, he was not given credit for that."

Here lies Joseph Raymond McCarthy, old "Tail Gunner Joe," may he rest in the peace that he disturbed so much in life.

Became Powerful Figure

For a short time in the 1950s, the blustery Wisconsin senator, a native of nearby Grand Chute, became one of the most feared and powerful figures in the land. He shocked the nation with sweeping allegations of communists in the State Department, communists in the military, communists seemingly under every bed.

His downfall was just as dramatic, as critics finally mustered the courage to challenge his tactics. In one of the most riveting exchanges ever broadcast, an obscure Boston attorney publicly deflated the burly Republican lawmaker during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings.

"Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," cried Joseph Welch, after McCarthy questioned the loyalty of a Welch colleague. "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

Broken, McCarthy was censured by his colleagues in the Senate for making unsubstantiated charges against members of Congress and died in 1957 from the effects of a liver disease and excessive drinking, a pariah even in his own Republican Party. His name would forever be synonymous with the witch hunts, blacklisting and political paranoia of the early Cold War days.

That's the conventional view, but there are still those who insist history gave McCarthy a raw deal. And, each year around the anniversary of his death, they hold a reunion of sorts at his graveside here in St. Mary's Cemetery to pay homage to a man they insist was not a bully, but a visionary.

'Communists by Thousands'

"I think eventually Joe will be proven to be right," said Thomas J. Bergen, a Milwaukee lawyer and president of the Senator Joseph R. McCarthy Foundation. "By God, there were communists by the thousands in the government. People just refused to listen. They were bamboozled by the communist tyranny."

Past memorials hardly rated a notice in Appleton, a bustling center of paper mills and insurance firms, where most folks would rather recall the area's other world-famous native--Erich Weiss, the rabbi's son better known as escape artist Harry Houdini.

But recently, the staunchly anti-communist John Birch Society announced plans to close headquarters in both San Marino, Calif., and Belmont, Mass., and consolidate them into a new national office in Appleton, the home of its chief executive.

Birch officials said the Appleton move was solely a cost-cutting maneuver. Still, the news has stirred fears in this quiet, industrious and moderately conservative community of 66,000.

"I think people are usually pretty fair, but they add things up," said City Atty. Greg Carman. "It's like a tote board. . . . They'll see this stuff and they'll look at Appleton and think it's a hotbed of conservative thought."

Although they can't do much about the Birch Society or the McCarthy memorials, some local leaders are talking about organizing a petition drive to press the Outagamie County Board into doing away with the town's most visible symbol of its links to McCarthy--a larger-than-life bust of the senator which dominates the main hall of the county courthouse where he once served as a judge.

Ron Vandervelden, a board member, said showcasing the McCarthy likeness was tantamount to a tacit endorsement of all that he stood for. "When you walk in, what kind of a statement are we making to the public?" asked Vandervelden. " . . . He was a historical figure, so let's stick the damn thing in a museum. He was an embarrassment."

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