"Tail Gunner Joe," a fascinating portrait of the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and the times that so rapidly made and destroyed him, airs for three hours Sunday night on Channel 4, starting at 8.

It stars Peter Boyle in a gifted recreation of the controversial Wisconsin senator, and Burgess Meredith as Joseph Welch, the Boston attorney whose unconcealed disdain did so much to put McCarthy in perspective during the famous Army hearings of 1954.

The times seem to be right for a retrospective on a man who could grab national headlines for four years armed with innuendo and a talent for character assassination - weapons he constantly accused his enemies of employing against him.

In the process he entered his name in the nation's political vocabulary from which, like a lot of political invective 25 years old, it is often now missapplied.

The story makes the unassailable point that McCarthy, who chased Communists around for years without every actually catching one, wouldn't have been "successful" if the media and a lot of politicians, including President Truman and Eisenhower, hadn't tolerated him.

There is a certain hand-wringing quality to some of the narration Sunday night (scripwriters long to be on the side of the angels, too) and there is a little side-stepping when it comes to explaining the sources of McCarthy's political strengths, such as they were.

Not fully spelled out, for instance, is the latent anti-Semitism that McCarthy invoked. Nor is there a full examination of his principal, if diffuse, power source - a conservative American Catholic bloc that shared his suspicions of the few liberals who dared to attack McCarthy's position.

But overall, Sunday night's history is remarkably fair and, for those who did not live through McCarthy's heyday, a most credible recapitulation of the climate of the times.

The drama employs the shopworn device of a story within a story, in which a very "now" young TV reporter is sent out to do a retrospective on McCarthy and conveniently finds ageing eyewitnesses in the right chronological order.

Once the story is launched, however, it's a humdinger. Boyle even manages to show some of the brazen McCarthy charm, which like his alcoholism, went unreported in the days when he was at the top of his dismal game.

McCarthy was raised harshly in a Wisconsin farm community, dropped out of high school to make his way in the world and entered politics as a successful candidate for circuit judge when he was 30. From the start, apparently, he pulled campaign tricks that might have given a Donald Segrett's pause.

During the World War II, he was a desk-bound Marine officer in the South Pacific, who when drunk enough, would climb into the tail gunner's seat of a grounded fighter plane and shoot up the nearby coconut trees.

McCarthy turned the mocking title, "Tail Gunner Joe" into a campaign slogan when he went home to run successfully for the U.S. Senate in 1946.

During his first four years in Washington, McCarthy established himself as a lackluster politician, and several columnists, including the redoubtable Drew Pearson, reported that he had his hand out to every lobby in town.

But in 1950, sensing he was going to be out of a job in a little while, he seized on the "Communist in government" issue that had been just below the surface in American politics following several spy scares and the Alger Hiss perjury trial.

What followed seems incredible now. With a stem-winding speech in Wheeling, W. Va., in which he claimed that he had the names of 205 card-carrying Reds then in the State Department, he hit the headlines.

He never produced a name, of course, but he bullied his fellow senators and lashed out, sometimes physically at anyone who dared to attack him.

Mrs. Drew Pearson, the columnists widow, said this week that the recreation of the scene at the Sulgrave Club where McCarthy actually kicked the writer in the groin, "was pretty accurate."

She points out, however, that the incident occured when the couple was leaving the club and that Vice president Nixon had spent the evening trying to keep McCarthy quiet, and had helped pull him off Pearson, a point which is not quite clear in the television version.

Eventually, even the reluctant Eisenshower, who had actually appeared on a campaign platform in Appleton, Wis., with McCarthy in 1952 - despite the fact the latter had villified Ike's mentor, Gen. George C. Marshall - became fed up.

When McCarthy mounted still another fruitless attack against the U.S. Army, in 1954, the government landed on him.

The best attorneys in the country were on hand to defend the military against a series of ridiculous McCarthy charges.

Months later, the Senate worked up the nerve to "condemn" his conduct and within three quick years McCarthy was dead apparently from alcoholism.

As he is delineated Sunday night, it doesn't seem possible that a sometimes likeable buffoon could have hurt so many people and been taken so seriously by so many for so little reason. Washington journalists of that era, it is abundantly clear, had a great deal to answer for.