MOVIE COMMENTARY:

"Good Night, and Good Luck"

Background Review by Joseph Rosenberg
"GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK"
Directed and co-written by George Clooney
Produced by Grant Heslov
Warner Independent, 2005

A lot of people in government service lost their jobs due to McCarthy's false allegations, and had trouble being employed in their profession. Those are the people Murrow and Friendly protected, to their everlasting credit.
I was 11 years old in PS 229 Bath Beach, Brooklyn, when I first heard the word “pinko.” It was “show and tell” and one of the class mentioned that Don Hollenback of the 11 o’clock news had killed himself, he started to talk about the event, but our teacher, Mrs. Robinson, cut him off, saying we needn’t bother talking about this as the deceased was a “pinko." The next time I saw Senator Joe McCarthy on TV, I understood how he was not an entertainer, but the kind sort of person who affected people’s lives--but not only for the better. As I got older I began to read about McCarthy and that era. I read Richard Rovere on McCarthy and Alexander Kendrick on Murrow and a number of books on CBS’s early history. All did not get into the private lives of Murrow, William Paley, or McCarthy, but they did get to the essence of these men, who were the protagonists in Clooney’s docu-drama, one of the most accurate of that genre.

Edward R. Murrow and his partner Fred Friendly came to the issue of Joe McCarthy later then others. From the start of McCarthy’s “discovery” of the issue of communists in the Government in 1950, the left-wing press, notably the New York Post and magazines like The Nation and The New Republic, opposed him. At some point in time his tactics were denounced by Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, and of course many officials in the Truman Administration.

Once in office Dwight Eisenhower thought McCarthy had served his political purpose: election of Republicans in Congress and the White House. Eisenhower was chagrined about McCarthy’s denunciation of military people formerly under Ike’s command. As McCarthy lost everyday control of his committee to his chief Counsel, Roy Cohn, they took on the US Army because Cohn’s of attempt to obtain special privileges for his associate and possible paramour, G. David Shine, when he, Shine, was drafted. Although initially the Secretary of the Army, Robert Stevens, tried to appease Cohn, Eisenhower let the former textile firm owner know through VP Nixon that he had better oppose the McCarthy jihad. A message was also delivered to J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI to stop supplying McCarthy-Cohn with raw intelligence. Thus we had the spectacle on TV of the Army-McCarthy hearings, where a crafty lawyer representing the Army, Joseph Welsh, followed up on Murrow-Friendly’s depiction of McCarthy as a reckless bully. Walsh’s line, “Have you no decency, Sir...?” became a catchphrase, and satirist Stan Freberg put out a parody 45 rpm record about “Tailgunner” Joe called “Point of Order."

“Tailgunner” Joe’s first major deception was his alleged service as a tailgunner in World War II. “Desk jockey” Joe only cadged a few safe flights in the Pacific seated in the tailgunner position. This was the basis of his successful 1946 challenge to Robert LaFollette, Jr.’s reelection as Senator from Wisconsin. McCarthy was very much a backbencher until he had a meal with two Georgetown professors to come up with issues to run on in 1952. They suggested anti-communism, and McCarthy signed up for a series of speeches sponsored by the GOP around the US. In Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy took a piece of paper out of his pocket and said there were X number of Communists in the State Department. The US was attacked in Korea, Mao was in charge of China and someone was to blame, according to Republicans like Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee. The press latched on to McCarthy’s paranoia and wanted to know what was on that paper. McCarthy kept changing the numbers and had the Senate Committee he was on begin investigations of these charges. Robert Taft, Nixon and other Republicans cheered McCarthy on, and he cleverly had a new allegation a day for the press right before deadline, so people read up on the latest exposure in their morning paper. Other than a shot of McCarthy making another accusation, TV coverage was scarce, and until Murrow-Friendly put on their “See It Now” depiction of the senator’s tactics in prime time, few had seen the Senator in action at previous hearings that were shown live in daytime.

William Paley, the son of a wealthy cigar maker and distributor, had an adventurous nature when he bought into the Columbia Broadcast System in a market dominated by Robert Sarnoff’s NBC. In time Paley was competing with Sarnoff for talent. CBS had a modest news operation when Edward R. Murrow was appointed Director of Talks. Murrow had been a national student leader at Washington State. Although his post-collegiate career in the national student movement sent him to Russia, he was very much an FDR liberal and rejected Marxism in theory and as practiced. Murrow was sent to Europe to recruit a staff for CBS and found himself on the other side of the microphone broadcasting the Battle of Britain and the rise of Hitler’s war machine. Murrow found a new staff from his London base; not just pretty voices but journalists. He had roundtable remote discussions with CBS correspondents and basically set up the framework for today’s news reportage. His London broadcasts during the “Blitz” made him famous and a friend to both America’s and England’s political establishment. By the time of the “See It Now” broadcast, he was a pretty smug “Son of a Gun."

Murrow was in the White House for dinner with FDR on December 7, 1941, and when he finally talked to Roosevelt in the evening, he was told of the tremendous losses of the US Navy at Pearl Harbor and the Pacific. Without being asked, Murrow, the patriot, never reported on what he saw and heard that day. Upon his return to Europe, Bill Paley, who wrangled a job under Supreme Commander Eisenhower, joined Murrow in London. As a very popular and social American, Murrow introduced his boss to Great Britain, especially the social and extracurricular side of London nightlife. They bonded and worked hand in hand until "See It Now" affected CBS’ bottom line. Upon his return to post-war America, Murrow became a CBS executive and board member. Being an executive and off the air was not Murrow’s métier. He had to fire old friends like William Shirer, whose political commentaries crossed the line towards advocacy. Like the present, CBS was concerned about being viewed as“too liberal” in the anti-communist atmosphere of the time.

Murrow was back on the radio with a news and commentary show and formed a partnership with Fred Friendly to produce “Hear it Now” and a series of Long-Playing records. "Hear It Now" became "See It Now" as TV became the dominant media. Although not quite fluff, many of the early shows stayed in the mainstream as Murrow visited Korea and other hot spots. To soften his image, "Person To Person" was introduced and Edward R., with cigarette in an easy chair, “interviewed” celebrities like Liberace, Roy Campanella, Arthur Miller and Jack Kennedy. Almost constantly, the non-communist left, headquartered in New York, urged Murrow to take on the Junior Senator from Wisconsin. By then, corporate CBS, led by Dr. Frank Stanton, had its eye on "See It Now"’s time slot. The programs on Radulovich and McCarthy only hastened Murrow-Friendly’s exile to Sunday afternoons, where they competed with roller derbies and wrestling. The speech Murrow gives at the beginning of the "Good Night, and Good Luck" movie was his reaction to being marginalized. Stanton retaliated for Paley by including "Person to Person" in his denunciation of rigged quiz shows. That cut it with Morrow and CBS. He was one of the regional reporters for the 1960 election night coverage and was very uncomfortable. The anchor rarely asked him anything. Soon after, he became the head of the US Information Agency under Kennedy and began his long battle with the cancer that killed him.

Paley and Stanton moved on at CBS. Fred Friendly quit because the network wouldn’t interrupt the soaps for a hearing on Vietnam. The Murrow “boys” soldiered on at CBS and other venues, but news as news was gone, as was Paley, who didn’t have the mega-bucks to compete.

After the Army-McCarthy hearings, Roy Cohn left McCarthy to become an uber-shyster in New York. The Senate conducted a quiet hearing on McCarthy, where, thanks to a kind-hearted Nixon, he was censured rather than condemned. By all accounts, he drank himself to death, rarely surfacing in the light of day.

Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were found to be Communist spies when the USSR files became available, but that had nothing to do with the Tailgunner’s investigations. I don’t think McCarthy found any real Communists in the Government, although there were a few discovered by Hoover, HUAC and McCarthy. A lot of people in government service lost their jobs due to McCarthy's false allegations, and had trouble being employed in their profession. Those are the people Murrow and Friendly protected, to their everlasting credit.


Joe Rosenberg, of Baltimore, is retired from federal government work. He may be reached at rosenbergjoseph@hotmail.com.



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This story was published on November 28, 2005.