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How McCarthyism, the Rise of Tabloids, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Quest to Prove Himself “Manly” Led to a Surveillance State

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The hearing room was sweating. Though the weather was mild—partly cloudy with a high of seventy-four degrees—the temperature inside the Senate Caucus Room kept climbing steadily. An ornate space designed for three hundred occupants, on this day it was packed with eight hundred; even congressmen were sometimes escorted out by apologetic Capitol policemen who cited fire codes. Klieg lights and television cameras cramped the chamber even further, and the heat from the bulbs pushed the temperature higher. But any discomfort felt by those in attendance was secondary to the need to broadcast the hearings to the twenty million people watching on television.


The hearings became the most-watched live event in television’s infant history, offering a clear look at the phenomenon already known as “McCarthyism,” referring both to Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s campaign against communist subversives in the federal government and his controversial tactics. For over four years McCarthy had mesmerized the nation and attracted millions of fawning supporters. He had created a serial drama that promised glimpses into the clandestine operations and backroom dealings of the era’s most pressing geopolitical concern, the fight against communism. Since the end of World War II the United States had been gripped by fears that the Soviet Union and the global communist movement were conspiring to destroy Western-style capitalism and democracy. That threat required constant vigilance against domestic subversion, and McCarthy’s rapid rise to power had largely been fueled by his promise to protect the nation.

But McCarthy and his crusade were deeply controversial. Critics accused him of trampling individual liberties, attacking innocent federal employees, flouting civil discourse, and fabricating evidence. Even members of his own party spoke out against McCarthy, charging him with promoting “a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.”

Now McCarthyism faced its most substantial test. The US Army had accused McCarthy and his top aide Roy M. Cohn of seeking preferential treatment for G. David Schine, a recently drafted private who was both a McCarthy staffer and Cohn’s close friend. In turn, McCarthy and Cohn charged that the Army was using Schine’s draft status to thwart McCarthy’s investigation of both communists and homosexuals in its ranks. The former were cast as sworn enemies of the American experiment, the latter as deviant fellow travelers who were inherently subversive.

As the Caucus Room filled on the afternoon of April 30, questioning turned to a photograph McCarthy had presented to support his case. Counsel for the Army Joseph Nye Welch noted that the image had been cropped, and he wondered aloud where the photograph had originated and who had ordered the doctoring. On the stand sat a perspiring Jim Juliana, the McCarthy assistant who had prepared the print, pudgy-faced and dressed in a baggy suit. After Juliana repeatedly pled ignorance, Welch asked whether he thought the photograph “came from a pixie.”

Welch’s sarcasm was characteristic. But this comment cut more deeply than previous barbs, and the audience’s light laughter at it was mixed with guffaws of deeper understanding. For many months both McCarthy and Cohn had been hounded by rumors that they themselves were homosexuals, and were perhaps intent on securing preferential treatment for Schine because one (or both) of them was having an affair with him. Keenly aware of the large audience and hoping to parry Welch’s attack, McCarthy asked Welch to define the term “pixie,” suggesting that Welch was possibly an expert on the subject. Welch replied that a “pixie is a close relative of a fairy” and asked if that “enlightened” McCarthy. As the audience burst into even greater laughter, the television feed cut from a view of the entire Caucus Room to tighter shots of Welch, McCarthy, and those seated with them. Viewers could see the senator chuckle and roll his eyes knowingly. Next to him Cohn, just twenty-seven but with heavy bags under his eyes, tried to smile, but a look of frustration washed over him. He shifted nervously, his shoulders slumped, and he dropped his gaze to the table, or possibly to his hands.


The Army-McCarthy hearings have long been seen as a critical juncture in postwar American politics, a moment when McCarthy and his strident, often baseless accusations were cut down in an instant of national conscience epitomized by the famous rhetorical question Welch asked McCarthy toward the end of the hearings: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” But that story can obscure another, equally striking one that is visible in the homoerotic language of the pixie-fairy exchange. Since the end of World War I, American politics had been deeply influenced by a new political identity, which I call “surveillance state masculinity.” It emerged from three dynamics that had been percolating since the late nineteenth century: a revolution in how male identities were developed and expressed, a shift in the way Americans thought about media and information, and a transformation in how the federal government approached national security. Those changes deeply altered the relationship between the public and its leaders, influencing how political figures are measured, the values they espouse, and the way they communicate with the American people. In defining and exploring this political identity, this book examines how issues of gender, sexuality, gossip, and the national surveillance and security states intersected between approximately 1885 and 1954, with a particular focus on the first decade of the Cold War.

Though McCarthy and Cohn came to embody and perfect surveillance state masculinity, the godfather of that political identity was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Arguably the most influential American bureaucrat of the twentieth century, Hoover was essential to the creation of the national surveillance and security states, as well as the first major political figure to fully realize the possibilities of modern mass media. He used masculinity—both his own and that of his agents—as a vehicle to achieve his personal, professional, and ideological goals. McCarthy, combining roughneck masculinity and fervent anticommunism, built on Hoover’s foundation as he seized the national spotlight. Cohn took Hoover and McCarthy’s masculinist strategies to their logical ends, using secrecy, manipulation, and misinformation to secure influence—and inspire a new generation of leaders to do the same.

Hoover, McCarthy, and Cohn all rose to power by taking advantage of political anxieties over changing gender roles, communist infiltration, shifting social mores, and perceived increases in criminality. Each conspicuously performed his masculinity, even while being hounded by rumors and insinuations that he was “queer” or a “sissy,” and thus insufficiently manly to guard the country’s moral well-being and ensure its security. These rumors spread through a growing industry in political gossip, which purported to traffic in “national intelligence.” Indeed, gossip—spread through syndicated newspaper columns, wildly popular magazines, and word of mouth—became a means to express, discuss, and negotiate concerns about national security, gender roles, and sexual identity.

Those overlapping anxieties fostered a specific form of masculine identity that came to dominate American politics by the middle of the twentieth century. Its hallmarks can be seen in the maneuvers individuals made in navigating its expectations. For instance, why did Hoover continually mislead the press about his physical attributes? Why did McCarthy stress his roughneck manliness while on the campaign trail? Why did Cohn actively seek to have his name associated with starlets in gossip columns? The answers to these questions help illuminate how individuals negotiated the gendered valences of political culture during—and ultimately in relationship to—the founding, expansion, and codification of the emerging national surveillance and security states.

That context gave rise to a collection of characteristics that observers used to determine a man’s fitness for leading and defending the national security state. Such a man had to be aggressive, in control, unapologetic, informed, professional, competitive, deliberate, and unquestionably heterosexual. It was a political identity born at the intersection of two sets of anxieties: those about national security and those about the rise of “consumerist masculinity.” More a style than an ideology, this kind of masculinity embodied by a variety of bureaucrats and politicians. Hoover, McCarthy, Cohn, and others sought to project its central components—including “hard masculine toughness”—to demonstrate their fitness for protecting America.

Studying these three men can help us understand long-term developments in politics, gender, and sexuality. Examining how Hoover, McCarthy, and Cohn—both as national figures and private individuals— negotiated the expectations of their times can illuminate those expectations and the institutions that gave them force. Gossip—the public circulation of information that interested parties would prefer remain private—played a particularly central role in this process, binding security state politics and gendered identity. Gossip and innuendo have influenced American politics since the nation’s founding, but the 1885–1954 era (especially 1945–54) was transformative for a number of reasons. First, it featured a growing gossip industry (tabloids, magazines, and columnists) with increased social and political influence—ironically a product of the Progressive-era professionalization of journalism. Until around the turn of the twentieth century, many news outlets explicitly tied themselves to one political party or faction; afterward, they became purportedly objective enterprises dedicated to exposing hidden “truths” about society, politics, and culture. Rumors became more powerful partially because they could not be immediately dismissed as the productions of biased parties. Second, gossip’s influence grew alongside the birth of “celebrity.” In the first half of the twentieth century, Americans came to think differently about public personalities, becoming more deeply interested in the private lives of movie stars, popular musicians, sports heroes, and politicians and coming to believe that private actions would determine public ones. Finally, gossip’s expansion was fueled by the Cold War and the Second Red Scare, which popularized narratives of “secrecy” and “national intelligence.” Information once derided as idle talk became a matter of national security: a man having sex with other men was not merely perverted but also someone who was both exposing himself to blackmail and undermining the nation’s moral fabric.

Thus, Hoover’s, McCarthy’s, and Cohn’s use of gossip in national security was intertwined with a revolution in the content, accuracy, prevalence, and dissemination of gossip generally. Columnists such as Walter Winchell and magazines like Confidential used rumor and insinuation to combine the personal and the political, defining bureaucrats and politicians as much by their changeable personalities as by their seemingly fixed character. Fueled by the building up and tearing down of reputations and personalities, the gossip industry resonated with deeper trends in how Americans were thinking about what identities were and how they came to be.

Surveillance state masculinity shaped both the national security and surveillance states, as well as American political culture more broadly. It arose amid anxieties accompanying America’s emergence on the global stage, a new emphasis on the significance of “intelligence,” and a shifting media landscape featuring pervasive gossip, tabloid journalism, national radio personalities, and, ultimately, live television coverage. And it became dominant because it helped pacify those worries.

But Hoover, McCarthy, and Cohn did not embody surveillance state masculinity merely because it answered the questions dominating American politics at the moment they sought power. They also needed  to hide what were seen as their masculine deficiencies. In a time of deep anxiety, they too were driven by fear.



Excerpt reprinted with permission from Gossip Men: J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy Roy Cohn, and the Politics of Insinuation by Christopher M. Elias, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

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Michael Neff
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