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Town Faces Legacy of an Infamous Son

A museum exhibit reveals a community's quiet yet enduring sympathy for Joseph McCarthy.

January 24, 2002|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

APPLETON, Wis. — His mother doted on him. His older brother bullied him. By 14 he had his own chicken farm, and by the time he was 19, it had failed. It wasn't until age 20 that he started high school; classmates voted him "Most Lovable Man." He was a judge at 30 and a U.S. senator before 40.

Although the early life of Joseph McCarthy was a politician's dream, he died in 1957 at age 48, felled by hepatitis and liquor and the certainty of history's harsh judgment. Brandishing a list of names, he seared himself into the national memory with his zealous investigations of communist penetration of the government. Those probes failed, and McCarthy lives on today as an epithet, a synonym for reckless attacks and dishonest smears. Here, in his hometown, even his name seemed forgotten, so rarely was it uttered.

McCarthy goes unmentioned in local tourist guides, which dwell instead on Harry Houdini and Edna Ferber, even though they spent most of their lives far from Wisconsin. No buildings or bridges are named for McCarthy. No signs mark the farmhouse where he was born and raised. Nor is the cemetery where he is buried listed in the phone book.

But this year, for the first time, the town is facing the legacy of its most infamous native son head-on. In the first comprehensive museum exhibit on his life anywhere, McCarthy, the last major American politician born in a log cabin, is being revived not just as a historical villain but as the star of a classic bootstraps-up tale.

"Joseph McCarthy: A Modern Tragedy," which opened to the public Saturday at the Outagamie Museum in this town of 70,000, has attracted considerable attention. The local newspaper has assigned a reporter to produce a series of stories on McCarthy's life and the new exhibit. Groups of McCarthy defenders have raised their profiles. Politicians, long wary of invoking McCarthy, discuss him publicly. America's McCarthy scholars, nearly all of whom have advised the exhibit's curator, are looking anew at the senator's roots.

In raising McCarthy's profile, the exhibit has revealed that, far from being forgotten by his hometown, McCarthy remains the object of quiet but enduring sympathy.

"It's really a coming-out party for McCarthy. Before this in Appleton, it was almost as if the guy never existed," said Jerald Podair, a historian at Lawrence University here. "In Appleton, it's one of the most relevant exhibits that's ever been put on. And you learn that if he had been just a regular senator, he'd be an American success story."

In making that case, the exhibit is cautious. There is a warning posted at the door ("This exhibit includes strong language and discussions which some viewers might find disturbing"--a reference to the subject and a few coarse words in museum quotes.) And the curators have included a bulletin board to give visitors a chance to air complaints.

The overall presentation is so evenhanded it may upset those who see McCarthy as an irredeemably evil figure. While taking note of what it calls McCarthy's "reckless" behavior and "character flaws," it emphasizes that his anti-communist crusades were grounded in the Cold War fears fanned by communist victories in China and Korea. And the exhibit texts invoke post-Sept. 11 concerns in appealing for understanding of the subject.

"Once again Americans are weighing issues of national security and individual rights," said Kim Louagie, the Outagamie Museum curator who first conceived the exhibit three years ago. "McCarthy wrestled with the same issues."

But while texts, pictures and an audiotape from his investigations are on display, the balance of the exhibit is devoted to humanizing a man who has been demonized for decades.

"They have made this exhibit into a personal tragedy about his life rather than a national tragedy about politics, and that is probably about right," said David Oshinsky, a Rutgers University professor and author of the 1983 biography "A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy." "His was a story of a local boy who hit the national scene--and really screwed up."

"I think this exhibit will make it easier to talk about him," said Sally Mielke, chairwoman of the Outagamie County Board of Supervisors. Her husband had met McCarthy. "I don't think you can simply say he was just evil--no one who knew him believes that. I think he had a touch of truth but went too far. Since 9/11, people are remembering we have to be watchful, even paranoid. And like McCarthy did, we all have to decide for ourselves how far we should go to protect the country."

Joe McCarthy usually made a good first impression. Cody Splitt, now a county supervisor in Appleton, remembers watching him descend a staircase at a hotel in Madison during his 1946 Senate campaign. Broad-shouldered and handsome, he was the only man in the room not wearing a tie. Impressed, Splitt, then a law student at the University of Wisconsin, befriended him and volunteered in the campaign, handing out matchbooks with McCarthy's name.

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