Feb. 9, 1950
Joseph McCarthy was just an obscure backbench Senator from Wisconsin looking for a political edge when he arrived in Wheeling, W.Va., to address a Lincoln Day dinner. He wasn't even sure what he was going to say, so he took along a speech on federal housing programs and another on alleged communists in government. A local Republican advised that the commie speech would have more oomph. And so that night, McCarthy, waving a paper in the air, proclaimed, "I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party ..."
Overnight, his speech sparked a media firestorm that played to the basest fears of Americans swept up in a frightening cold war and triggered loyalty oaths, blacklists and personal betrayals that cost an estimated 10,000 Americans their jobs and some shattered innocents their lives. In 1954 he turned his bullying on the U.S. Army in widely watched television hearings that ultimately exposed McCarthy for the fraudulent demagogue he was. He died a broken alcoholic three years later, but his name remains synonymous with the most reviled style of American politics.