Despite its inflammatory title, "The American Inquisition," an "ABC News Closeup" airing at 9 tonight on Channel 7, is a curiously lethargic retrospective on McCarthyism and the anti-communist mania of the '50s, produced with all the vitality of two aging Rotarians trading stories in the club car.
The subject is perennially deserving, and the format promising: ABC disdains the furied bombast of Washington hearing rooms, focusing instead on how red slurs crushed the careers and spirits of two ordinary citizens.
Narrator/co-writer Marshall Frady dutifully tries to pump some urgency into the show by recalling "the national season of fear" in which by 1952 one out of five Americans was subjected to some kind of loyalty oath, and by 1957, 11,500 had lost their jobs because of allegations of subversion. He even floats an ominous and gratuitous teaser, asking, "just how distant are we after all?" from that reign of patriotic terror.
But when the profiles begin, it is apparent that the program aspires no higher than rote pathos. The first victim, Paul McCarty, lost his job as an electrical worker at a Kentucky atomic energy plant in 1953 when FBI informants said he had communist ties. McCarty denied it, but could not confront his accusers. He became a migrant, fired from job after job as the story followed him like a whispering nemesis. Thirty years later, he sits in his Utah home, obsessively shuffling his dozens of letters demanding exoneration from government officials. "As the years have passed, his ambitions have dried up," his wife says. "He's a prisoner in his own mind, and they might as well have shoved him in prison 30 years ago." Says his son: "He's put in the position of tilting at windmills that have fallen down 30 years ago." There are intercut film clips of Sen. Joe McCarthy railing and Gary Cooper testifying; there are splendid shots of the Utah hillscape. But there is no sense of what the man endured.
What does McCarty have to say? How did he feel, fight, cope with the slander? How had he provoked the charge? We are left to guess. Everybody tells McCarty's story but McCarty.
Ditto for the more interesting figure of Luella Mundel, who came to the hamlet of Fairmont, W.Va., in 1951 to head the art department at the local college. McCarthy had been haranguing his audiences to "be vigilant day and night to be sure they don't have Communists teaching the sons and daughters of America," and had told a crowd in Wheeling that "our job as Americans and Republicans is to dislodge the traitors." The Fairmont American Legion began holding "anti-subversive meetings," and at one of them author Victor Lasky was speaking on the red menace.
Mundel stood up to protest what she saw as anti-American totalitarianism. Lasky, who recalls Mundel as "an hysterical woman," called her a communist; she called him a Nazi. Shortly thereafter, she was purged from her job when the president of the school board called her a "poor security risk." Mundel sued for slander, but the trial that one witness calls "merciless" culminated in her fleeing the courtroom a sobbing wreck.
By any standards, the simple courage of this slight woman with a tiny soprano wheeze of a voice, was extraordinary. We want to know its origin, feel its power. Yet what we get is plenty of context from historian William Manchester, ample sadness from friends and observers, and only a few dozen of Mundel's own words and nothing of her motives--although ABC has transported her back to the infamous courtroom for effect.
Frady calls McCarty and Mundel "unnoticed casualties" of the McCarthy dementia. And in the last analysis, so they are in this program.