From the Newsletter | Is the GOP’s Grilling of College Presidents Tantamount to McCarthyism?

By | May 23, 2024
From the Newsletter
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The Republican-dominated House Committee on Education and the Workforce today holds its third in a series of hearings calling upon college presidents to discuss their efforts to stem antisemitism on campus. At today’s hearing, the heads of UCLA, Northwestern and Rutgers will be in the Republican majority’s crosshairs.

The stakes are high.

In the first hearing in December, overly nuanced answers to rapid-fire questions ultimately cost the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania their leadership positions. In the second hearing in April, the president of Columbia bent over backwards to appease the House committee. It remains to be seen whether the third panel will emerge unscathed or merely provide the Republican majority with more piñata fodder.

But one thing appears certain: Republicans will apply broad-brushstroke “Gotcha” tactics to complex problems that defy one-size-fits-all solutions, and defenders of the university presidents will accuse Republicans of “McCarthyism.”

But are the attacks on the college presidents truly McCarthyism? Or does the comparison cheapen the memory of the “Red Scare” unleashed by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and other members of Congress just as the United States emerged from World War II and plunged into the Cold War against the Soviet Union?

I recently posed these questions in a piece for Moment: “Is McCarthyism Alive and Well on Capitol Hill?” This was not a subject with which I was unfamiliar. Born and raised on Manhattan’s West Side in the 1950s and 1960s, it might as well have been an additive to my baby bottle.

I was raised on stories about how the FBI came to our apartment door and my mother refused to talk to them. How my parents sheltered a woman on the run from the FBI. Although the exact circumstances were never explained, when my brother Paul asked my mother for a reason years later, she—very old and suffering from Parkinson’s—rolled her eyes and answered: “The Party.” (My parents’ association with the Communist Party, or lack thereof, is another story altogether, but suffice it to say that they were sympathetic to the cause.)

McCarthyism arguably reached its darkest point in 1953 when the U.S. government executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for providing atomic-bomb secrets to the Soviets. My father was at the vigil in New York’s Union Square the night they electrocuted the Rosenbergs at Sing-Sing prison.

Despite these brushes with danger, my parents did their best to give me and my brother a normal childhood—letting us watch The Magical World of Disney on TV even though they considered Walt Disney a virulent anti-communist enemy, and even buying us Welch’s candies (remember “Sugar Babies”?) even though Robert Welch was a co-founder of the John Birch Society.

The McCarthy-era blacklist cost hundreds (if not thousands) of leftwing liberals their often-lucrative careers. One promising actor, Philip Loeb, committed suicide. By contrast, neither of my parents suffered in their careers. My father became a prominent psychiatrist in New York and my mother got a PhD and did research on youth employment.

Once, much later on, I suggested to my elderly dad that he and Mom hadn’t actually experienced setbacks in the McCarthy era. He became irate. “You don’t understand what it was like! You have no idea how we suffered!” I’d never seen him so angry over a non-disciplinary matter!

But we knew plenty of families who had not fared as well. One of them was my lifelong friend Eugene Pressman, whose father David had nearly lost his life in the final days of World War II when a bullet struck his hip and caromed through his midsection. After the war, he resumed his pre-war career as a theatrical director and producer, working in live television (according to Eugene, he gave Grace Kelly her first TV role).

The blacklist hit David Pressman because he had briefly been a Communist Party member before the war. As the 1950s unfolded, his work in theater and television dried up. But like many Blacklist victims, he managed to do an end-run around McCarthyism by refashioning his career in drama. He found work at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, a premier theater school that fostered stars such as Gregory Peck and went on to television as the Blacklist petered out in the 1960s. He spent 20-plus years directing the NY-based soap opera One Life to Live before dying just shy of 98 in 2011.

I remember David Pressman as a cheerful jokester, not morose or bitter in the least. But the sting of the Blacklist was never far below the surface, especially after earning a purple heart and coming home in the troop ship’s hospital ward.

“I practically gave my life for my country,” he told his son Eugene. “And they just spit me out.”

As these anecdotes show, MCarthyism had far-reaching consequences on the lives and careers of vast swathes of people. Although today’s Congressional hearing will likely display some of the pugnacity and reductionism that characterized the Red Scare, it’s unlikely that any of those testifying will be “spit out” of their universities or otherwise barred from making a livelihood in their chosen fields.

So, are these hearings grandstanding? Yes. Will they be politically caustic? Yes. Do they represent a resurgence of McCarthyism? As my irate dad might tell those conflating the two, “you have no idea what it was like!”

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