Archive for Friday, January 18, 2002

Museum show looks at life of Cold War icon

January 18, 2002


— In the early 1950s, a supporter gave Sen. Joseph McCarthy a brush not to brush his teeth or to comb his hair but "To Brush off the Communists in Washington," as it says on a piece of paper glued to it.

The Outagamie County Museum near McCarthy's hometown gathered the brush along with dozens of other items including his boxing shoes and three war medals for a two-year exhibit entitled "Joseph McCarthy: A Modern Tragedy." The show opens Saturday.

In the 1950s, McCarthy, a Republican from Grand Chute, Wis., hunted real and imagined communists in the government, Hollywood and elsewhere. McCarthyism and its tactics indiscriminate accusations, sensationalism and inquisitorial investigative methods ripped the nation apart and remain a matter of contention. The U.S. Senate censured McCarthy in 1954. He died of acute hepatitis in 1957, during his second term.

Kim Louagie, a curator at the museum, said she tried to be fair when putting together the $25,000 exhibit. Despite McCarthy's negative image, a lot of people here liked him, she said.

"I had to be very careful about weighing the evidence in what he was doing, and his motives and the results of what he did," she said.

"Over and over again it seemed to me this was a story of tragedy in the theatrical Greek tragedy sense in which this individual had a central character flaw," Louagie said. "At first, they are really useful and positive like his sense of independence and his ambition ... eventually becoming very negative and damaging to him, eventually taking him down."

McCarthy was born in Grand Chute in 1908. After a year at Little Wolf High School in Manawa, he graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1935 with a bachelor of laws degree, served in World War II and became a senator in 1946.

The museum accumulated many items after a local newspaper wrote an article about its effort. Donations came from a McCarthy family member, community residents and the current owner of McCarthy's childhood home.

McCarthy's wife, Jean Kerr, gave many items to Marquette. Some pieces are on loan to the museum, including McCarthy's three World War II medals, the brush and his burial flag.

The exhibit also includes his military footlocker and its contents dress shoes, dress hat, machete, Japanese flag, a decoder and a pair of women's earrings.

About 100 photographs also are part of the display. Some pictures are from the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, which were held after the Army charged McCarthy with interfering with operations as he searched for communists. A recorded excerpt from the hearings accompanies the pictures.

The area includes a cork board where visitors can write down and post their opinions of McCarthy. The museum also plans to hold sessions for students to discuss McCarthy after they've seen the exhibit.

Louagie said between 35,000 to 40,000 people a year visit the museum in Appleton, a city of about 70,000 in eastern Wisconsin.

The exhibit already has people talking.

"There's no way an exhibit or any responsible person can make Joe McCarthy a hero," said Thomas C. Reeves, author of "The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy."

"If it educates a new generation, fine. I just hope they put it in good, confident historical perspective." Said McCarthy's 81-year-old cousin, Richard: "It made me feel good that they were writing down the facts, the pros and cons."

Meanwhile, Outagamie County Supervisor Joseph Harvath, who doesn't agree with McCarthy's tactics, said it's history.

"He was a local boy and it's part of our history good and bad," Harvath said.

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