to gavel" on the ABC and DuMont networks from 22 April to 17 June
1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings were the first nationally televised
congressional inquiry and a landmark in the emergent nexus between
television and American politics. Though the Kefauver Crime Committee
hearings of March 1951 can claim priority as a congressional TV
show, and subsequent political spectacles (the Watergate hearings,
The Iran Contra hearings, The Thomas-Hill hearings) would rivet
the attention of later generations of televiewers, the Army-McCarthy
hearings remain the genre prototype for sheer theatricality and
the Army-McCarthy hearings convened to investigate a convoluted
series of charges leveled by the junior Republican Senator from
Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, at the U.S. Army and vice versa.
In November 1953, a consultant on McCarthy's staff named G. David
Schine was drafted into the Army. Even before Schine's formal induction,
Roy M. Cohn, McCarthy's chief counsel, had begun a personal campaign
to pressure military officials--from the Secretary of the Army on
down to Schine's company commander--into giving Private Schine special
privileges. When on 11 March 1954 the Army issued a detailed chronology
documenting Cohn's improper intrusions into Schine's military career,
McCarthy responded by claiming the Army was holding Schine "hostage"
to deter his committee from exposing communists within the military
ranks. To resolve the dispute, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee
on Investigations, of which McCarthy was chairman, voted to investigate
and to allow live television coverage of the inquiry. McCarthy relinquished
the chairmanship to Karl Mundt (Republican, South Dakota) to become,
with Cohn, contestant and witness in a widely anticipated live television
thirty-six days of hearings, 188 hours of broadcast time were given
over to telecasts originating from the Senate Caucus Room. The network
"feed" came courtesy of the facilities of ABC's Washington, D.C.
affiliate, WMAL-TV. Initially, all four networks where expected
to carry the complete hearings live, but NBC and CBS balked at the
loss of revenues from commercial programming. With an eye to its
profitable daytime soap opera line-up, CBS opted out before the
hearings began, leaving NBC, ABC, and DuMont formally committed
to coverage. On the second day of hearings, however, after a particularly
tedious afternoon session, NBC announced it was bailing out. Henceforth
NBC, like CBS, broadcast nightly round-ups edited from kinescopes
of the daytime ABC telecasts. CBS broadcast from 11:30 P.M.-12:15
A.M., so when NBC followed suit, it counter-programmed its recaps
from 11:15 P.M. to 12:00 midnight. Looking for a way to put his
third string news division on the map, ABC's president Robert E.
Kintner stuck with his decision to broadcast the entire event live,
jettisoning the network's daytime programming for continuous coverage,
gavel to gavel. Even so, some major markets in the United States
(Los Angeles for one) were deprived of live coverage when local
affiliates chose not to take the network feed.
televisual terms, the hearings pitted a boorish McCarthy and a bleary-eyed
Cohn against a coolly avuncular Joseph N. Welch of the Boston law
firm of Hale & Dorr, whom the Army had hired as its special counsel.
Welch's calm patrician manner served as an appealing contrast to
Cohn's unctuous posturing and McCarthy's rude outbursts (The senator's
nasal interjection "Point of order!" became a national catchphrase).
Senators, military men, and obscure staffers on the McCarthy Committee
became household names and faces, among them chain-smoking committee
counsel Ray H. Jenkins, milquetoast Secretary of the Army Robert
T. Stevens, and, hovering in the background, a young lawyer for
the committee Democrats named Robert F. Kennedy. Along with an often
partisan gallery in the packed, smoke-filled hearing room, an audience
of some twenty-million Americans watched the complicated testimony,
a crossfire of mutual recriminations over monitored telephone conversations,
doctored photographs, and fabricated memoranda.
afternoon of 9 June 1954 brought the emotional climax of the hearings,
an exchange replayed in myriad Cold War documentaries. Ignoring
a pre-hearing agreement between Welch and Cohn, McCarthy insinuated
that one Fred Fischer, a young lawyer at Hale & Dorr, harbored communist
sympathies. Welch responded with a righteous outburst that hit all
the hot buttons: "Until this moment, senator, I think I never gauged
your cruelty or recklessness....Have you no sense of decency, sir,
at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" When McCarthy
tried to strike back, Welch cut him off and demanded the chairman
"call the next witness." Pausing just a beat, the hushed gallery
erupted in applause. The uncomprehending McCarthy, shot dead on
live TV, turned to Cohn and stammered, "What happened?"
happened was that television, whose coverage of McCarthy's news
conferences and addresses to the nation had earlier lent him legitimacy
and power, had now precipitated his downfall. Prolonged exposure
to McCarthy's odious character and ill-mannered interruptions was
a textbook demonstration of how a hot personality wilted under the
glare of a cool medium. Toward the close of the hearings, Senator
Stuart Symington (Democrat, Missouri) underscored the lesson in
media politics during a sharp exchange with McCarthy: "The American
people have had a look at you for six weeks. You are not fooling
Army-McCarthy hearings were a television milestone not only because
of the inherent significance of the event covered but because television
coverage itself was crucial to the meaning, and unfolding, of events.
Moreover, unlike many historic television moments from the 1950s,
the hearings have remained alive in popular memory, mainly due to
filmmaker Emile de Antonio, who in 1962 culled from extant kinescopes
the landmark compilation film Point of Order!, the definitive documentary
record of America's first great made-for-TV political spectacle.
Antonio, Emile, and Daniel Talbot. Point of Order! A Documentary
of the Army-McCarthy Hearings. New York: Norton, 1964.
Michael. Trial by Television. Boston: Beacon, 1954.