It may seem unimaginable these days, but 60 years ago a U.S. Senator assaulted a prominent newspaper columnist at an exclusive club in Washington, D.C.
The brief but violent confrontation between Joe McCarthy and columnist Drew Pearson took place December 12, 1950, at the end of a dinner at the Sulgrave Club, which occupies a Gilded Age Beaux Arts mansion on DuPont Circle.
I recount this episode in my latest book, Getting It Wrong–in the chapter puncturing the myth about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and his half-hour television report on McCarthy in March 1954. The myth has it that Murrow confronted and single-handedly took down McCarthy, the Red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin.
I note in Getting It Wrong that “the evidence is overwhelming” that Murrow’s television report on McCarthy “had no such decisive effect, that Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”
Notable among those journalists was Pearson, a veteran, Washington-based syndicated columnist and radio commentator who, long before Murrow’s show, raised pointed and repeated challenges to McCarthy’s claims that communists had infiltrated high positions in the State Department, the Army, and other American institutions.
McCarthy, I write in Getting It Wrong, “had no more relentless, implacable, or scathing foe in the news media than Drew Pearson.”
The columnist readily made enemies, “and almost seemed to relish doing so,” I note. (Jack Shafer, the inestimable media writer for Slate, referred to Pearson not long ago as “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”)
Pearson became a target of McCarthy and his threats after writing repeatedly and critically about the senator’s bullying tactics, his tax troubles, and his thinly documented allegations about subversives in government.
In May 1950, McCarthy approached the columnist at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, placed a hand on his arm and muttered, “Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm….”
The threat was in effect a prelude to the encounter at the Sulgrave Club, then a hush-hush meeting place for Washington socialites and powerbrokers.
In December 1950, a 27-year-old socialite named Louise Tinsley (“Tinnie”) Steinman invited Pearson and McCarthy to join her guests at dinner at the Sulgrave. She seated the men at the same table and they traded barbs and insults throughout the evening.
Pearson and McCarthy “are the two biggest billygoats in the onion patch, and when they began butting, all present knew history was being made,” Time magazine said about their encounter, which took place on the eve of Pearson’s 53rd birthday. The columnist was born December 13, 1897.
At the Sulgrave, McCarthy repeatedly warned Pearson that he planned to attack the columnist in a speech in the Senate. Pearson in turn chided McCarthy on his tax troubles in Wisconsin.
As the evening ended, McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat check room. Accounts differ about what happened.
Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.
Richard Nixon, who had recently been sworn in as a U.S. Senator and who was guest at Tinnie Steinman’s party, intervened and broke up the encounter. Nixon, in his memoir RN, said Pearson “grabbed his coat and ran from the room. McCarthy said, ‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”
Pearson said he was embarrassed by McCarthy’s assault but insisted the senator had caused no harm.
In his 1999 book, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator, a revisionist treatment of McCarthy, Arthur Herman wrote of the encounter:
“If some were horrified and disgusted with what McCarthy had done, many were not,” given the many enemies that Pearson had made.
The encounter certainly didn’t stir the outrage that such an attack would cause today.
Soon after, McCarthy followed through on his threat to attack Pearson verbally.
From the libel-proof confines of the Senate floor, McCarthy delivered a vicious speech denouncing his nemesis as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”
McCarthy’s speech about Pearson was given December 15, 1950–more than three years before Murrow’s television report about the senator.
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