William F. Buckley looks back on what he might have said had he responded for Sen. Joe McCarthy to CBS’s Edward R. Murrow.
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.