W. Joseph Campbell

Remembering when Joe McCarthy beat up a columnist

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on December 9, 2010 at 12:09 am

It may seem unimaginable these days, but a U.S. Senator once assaulted a prominent newspaper columnist at an exclusive club in Washington, D.C.

Assaulted a columnist

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 book, Getting It Wrong — in a 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 critic, once 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.


Recent and related:

  1. […] 1924 until the newspaper’s last Christmas before folding in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or […]

  2. […] events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. Edward Murrow no more took down Joseph McCarthy than Walter Cronkite swayed a president’s views about the war in Vietnam. Yet those and other […]

  3. […] What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s prolonged wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had misplaced the letter that inspired a classic editorial, one that would recall the newspaper long after it folded in 1950. […]

  4. […] as the lead editorial on Christmas Eve. In the years that followed, until the newspaper folded in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or […]

  5. […] “several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics,” I […]

  6. […] was the notion that Murrow’s half-hour television report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 turned public opinion against the senator and his communists-in-government witch-hunt. In […]

  7. […] probing angered McCarthy, and in December 1950, the hulking senator physically assaulted Pearson after a dinner at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, […]

  8. […] Absurd though it was, the comparison in the Times served to train attention anew on Murrow and on his famous 30-minute television program of March 9, 1954, which supposedly helped end the communists-in-government witch-hunt of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. […]

  9. […] show came months, even years after other American journalists–notably, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson–had reported critically, closely, and often about McCarthy and his exaggerated […]

  10. […] exchange at a Senate hearing on June 9, 1954, in which lawyer Joseph N. Welch supposedly deflated Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by […]

  11. […] of straight reporting” while claiming the American press “stood idly by” as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy pursued his communists-in-government […]

  12. […] R. Murrow’s legendary television report in 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy has stirred no small praise over the […]

  13. […] I noted in my email that the first portion  of the passage – “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” – was spoken by Murrow near the end of his 1954 See It Now program about the witch-hunting ways of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. […]

  14. […] frequent challenges angered McCarthy who in December 1950, physically assaulted the columnist after a dinner at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, […]

  15. […] dramatic exchange at during a Senate hearing in 1954, in which the lawyer Joseph N. Welch skewered Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by […]

  16. […] about President Barack Obama’s place of birth is akin to the tactics of the odious Joe McCarthy, the Republican senator infamous for his communists-in-government witch-hunt during the early […]

  17. […] Murrow-McCarthy: Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now program in March 1954 did not end Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt; Murrow in fact was very late to take on McCarthy. […]

  18. […] Today’s Sydney Morning Herald does just that in turning to a particularly hardy media myth — that of Edward R. Murrow’s supposedly decisive televised report in 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. […]

  19. […] spoke the first sentence, during his mythical, 1954 See It Now  program about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The second portion — “When the loyal opposition dies…” — was […]

  20. […] Good Night, and Good Luck, the imaginatively made 2005 movie about Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now program about the red-bating U.S. senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. […]

  21. […] hardly took down Joe McCarthy in Murrow’s famous See It Now program on CBS in March […]

  22. […] more savory and tenacious myths — that he stood up to the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, when no other journalist would, or […]

  23. […] references were to Edward R. Murrow, whose 30-minute program on CBS about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 is often but erroneously credited with bringing down the Red-baiting senator, and to Walter […]

  24. […] did take on McCarthy, but belatedly — many months and even years after other journalists had pointedly called attention to the senator’s abusive tactics in investigating communists […]

  25. […] McCarthy, who often presented himself as little more than an unrefined brute. In December 1950, McCarthy assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the upscale Sulgrave Club in […]

  26. […] was the first, loudest and most persistent critic of Senator Joe McCarthy, to the point that Senator McCarthy physically attacked him at the […]

  27. […] quality of his work. Being in danger, or even knowing that someone you wrote about might want to confront you physically, made you care about honor and accuracy. Jack London, author of Call of the Wild, was a […]

  28. […] quality of his work. Being in danger, or even knowing that someone you wrote about might want to confront you physically, made you care about honor and accuracy. Jack London, author of Call of the Wild, was a […]

  29. […] book, Getting It Wrong, McCarthy had no more implacable critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson first challenged […]

  30. […] done so. McCarthy, I point out, had no more sustained or prominent critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the nationally syndicated muckraking column, “Washington […]

  31. […] thuggish threat, I write, was a prelude to a brief but violent encounter at the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, […]

  32. […] pursued his critical reporting about McCarthy, so angering the senator that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950 following a dinner-dance at the exclusive Sulgrave Club in […]

  33. […] book, Getting It Wrong, McCarthy had no more relentless critic in journalism than Drew Pearson, author of the syndicated muckraking column, “Washington […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: