December 7, 2005
Murrow vs. McCarthy
By William F. Buckley
Here is a coincidence of extra-parochial interest.
Hollywood releases a movie featuring (the late, lamented) Edward R. Murrow and (the late, unlamented) Sen. Joe McCarthy. It is called "Good Night, and Good Luck," and it portrays a famous broadcast denouncing McCarthy, shown in March 1954, on the eve of the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Murrow concluded his half-hour blast by inviting McCarthy to take the half-hour slot the following week to reply to Murrow's charges.
McCarthy's office advised CBS that the senator had decided to turn his half-hour over to this writer to reply to Murrow. The film depicts this scene. William Paley, CBS boss, is leaving the office with Fred Friendly, Murrow's producer. "They want to give the time to William Buckley," Paley says. "I'm opposed." Friendly agrees.
A few weeks have gone by since the film was released. In Stamford, Conn., on Saturday, Buckley is seen at a movie house watching "Good Night, and Good Luck." "Are you going to comment on it?" a fellow viewer asks at the film's close. Buckley says, "I don't think so. I've written two books about McCarthy."
But the next day there are large headlines in the Stamford Advocate, which is co-sponsoring an evening -- the day this column is being written, Tuesday, Dec. 6 -- featuring an award to Buckley by the distinguished Ferguson Library of Stamford, the first-ever Ferguson Award. It was 51 years ago that McCarthy named Buckley as best-equipped to answer Murrow, and now -- tonight! -- he can do so in the heart of Stamford.
The Ferguson Library is an intensively active culture center presided over by a librarian determined to exhaust every advance in modern technology to elevate the literacy of the community. Ernest DiMattia has of course books and periodicals, but also films and computers and multicolored simultaneous translators -- the Ferguson Library is the most concentrated aggregation of cultural hypodermics this side of the next world's fair.
The evening is not designed to elicit my views on Edward R. Murrow's views on Joe McCarthy, but the Stamford Advocate is a newspaper, and perhaps will look me in the face before the evening is over and say: Well. What would you have said, in March 1954, if the cameras had rolled and you were talking back to Edward R. Murrow?
If that happens, I'll probably say what is correct, namely that my own study of McCarthy ended with his activity in September 1953, that his fight with the Army, which was what the fracas was about in 1954 -- and which got him censured, and which loosed Edward R. Murrow -- was something else, that McCarthy had thrown restraint to one side, that he was deep in booze in those days and did some flatly inexcusable things, for instance his attack on Gen. Ralph Zwicker.
But, if pressed, I'd have recalled that the current movie makes a heroine out of Annie Lee Moss, the black code clerk allegedly mistaken by McCarthy for another Annie Lee Moss, who was indeed a member of the Communist Party. Never mind, what mattered in the current production was melodrama, and orderly thought bars chiasmic effects: McCarthy smeared the opposition/the opposition smeared McCarthy.
Murrow accomplished this mostly by camera manipulation. When he died, in 1965, I reflected on the point in National Review. Murrow had uniquely the skill to wrest the highest dramatic content out of any situation. There were the bad boys and the good boys; and he was the good boys' best boy on TV. But more than just that, he did develop a form, he and Fred Friendly, that hadn't been fully developed theretofore. It went like this: PAN ON FULL FACE OF SENATOR MCCARTHY. He is perspiring and weaving a little in front of a microphone, preparing to speak. No music. Total silence. Then the senator lets out a long burp. SHIFT TO ED MURROW. "Ladies and gentlemen, this evening we'll take a look at Senator McCarthy ..."
That half-hour on McCarthy was Murrow's most important show. All the obituary writers mentioned it, and the great courage it took to attack McCarthy -- which certainly indicated that this is a nation whose people are courageous, since everybody was doing it, or at least everybody who counts. Everybody moral. And Edward R. Murrow was the most moral man on television, because he had the guts to show up Senator McCarthy for what he was.
The lonely demurral came from the television critic for The New Yorker. He made the point that there wasn't anybody in the world you couldn't demolish by doing to him what Murrow did to McCarthy. If there were 5 million feet of film on St. Francis of Assisi, you could probably find a shot of him running away naked from his father's house (he did), and Ed Murrow could prove he was an exhibitionist and a poseur (he affected to talk to the birds!).
I don't know what I'd have said on CBS, if cleared by management to come on. At this remove, one has only passing thoughts.
Copyright 2005 Universal Press Syndicate