During World War II, which he spent mostly trying to acquire unearned medals, Sam Bradford developed a taste for shooting at defenseless targets. Although he spent most of his time behind a desk in the Pacific zone, he went out once as tail gunner on a mission to bomb a deserted airstrip on Bougainville "No resistance," pilot Harry Dodge told him. "No risk at all. Want to go?" And off they went, "delivering 15,000 pounds of explosives on a helpless, inert foe."
"Sam seemed to enjoy the idea of nesting all that energy on a defenseless target," Dodge recalls long after Sam's death, "and he got into the act with the machine guns -- which was not part of the briefing. Every time we made a run into the target, he blasted away at the coconut trees, and by the time the day was finished he had expended all the ammunition in both the tail and waist gunners' slots I calculated that he had fired more than 5,000 rounds, as excited as a small boy with a new toy."
That record-breaking feat got his name in the papers back home in Maryland and helped him on the way to the United States Senate, which was the destination he had in mind when he went off to war. Also helpful was the Purple Heart he got for spraining his ankle, after tripping over a shovel one night on the way to a latrine. Once he got elected, Sam discovered that the Senate was an even better place than a bomber from which to take potshots at unprotected targets.
As told by Harry Dodge, who became Senator Bradford's right-hand man and finally grew disgusted with his tactics, "Days of Power, Nights of Fear" is a novel, not a biography. Some of the details have been changed, but it is a novel rather closely based on history. Sam Bradford is a senator from Maryland, not Wisconsin; he dies of suicide, not natural causes; the extensive, pathetic and revolting sexual practices attributed to him seem to be Bynum Shaw's invention rather than a matter of historic record. But except for such minor details, Bradford is transparently Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, and his story is a political morality tale that may become timely once again as America moves inexorably deeper into a rerun of the 1950s.
Shaw is a former journalist, and he tells his story with the virtues that one expects from such a background -- a neat, uncluttered, efficient prose style, a keen eye for colorful and convincing detail, a narrative pace that keeps the story moving along briskly but not so fast that important points become blurred. Like a good reporter, he sticks to the facts, spending little time on sychological analysis, although he offers abundant material for readers who want to indulge themselves in that sport.
Sam Bradford is totally self-centered and rather stupid; uninterested in abstrct ideas, moral principles, or long-range planning, and much more interested in the pleasures and privileges of being a senator than in the routine drudgery of doing a senator's work. His lack of intelligence is no handicap, because the little that he has is tightly focused on the skills of political survival. At that, he proves to be a complete master until he begins to believe his own propoganda, yields to delusions of grandeur and suffers fatal political wounds in an attack on the leadership of his own party.
This is a violation of his basic principle, which was born in the massacre of coconut trees and reaches one of its most telling moments in the assault on a scientist named Leo Wiseman, who is J. Robert Oppenheimer as transparently as Bradford is Joe McCarthy. After receiving a tip on Wiseman, Bradford orders Dodge to investigate him, gets a report, and asks Dodge for advice:
"Would you say he is the chief architect of the Communist conspiracy in the United States?"
"That's what I'm going to say."
Dodge protests that much of the material in the files is unverified: "He might be a very bad man, this Wiseman; he also might be a very good man. Had that occurred to you?"
"No. The son of a bitch is vulnerable."
Shaw's portrait is somewhat simpler than the historic reality, but he manages to convey the atmosphere of the McCarthy era and the impact of his personality with considerable precision. He also has a sense of behind-the-scenes Washington that justifies his novel's subtitle. If his fictional elaborations of the story add nothing significant to the portrait of its central character, they do wrap some basic lessons on American political processes in an easy-to-take package. For a whole generation which has grown up without first-hand knowledge of the McCarthy phenomenon, this novel may serve as a handy introduction, if not a complete discussion.