“Why Now?” Episode 15: Rumor Has It

A conversation with historian Christopher Elias about his book, “Gossip Men: J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and the Politics of Insinuation”

An important theme of this episode is gossip about powerful men having erotic relationships with other men. I want to be clear that there is no new evidence that proves or disproves sexual insinuations about the men we discuss below: by definition, gossip is a believable rumor that isn’t necessarily factual.

When Joseph R. Welch called for decency in the June 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, it was not just a reference to Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s attack on a younger lawyer. It was another way for Welch to draw attention to the gossip everyone in the room and many in the television audience had heard: that McCarthy’s associates, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, were allegedly in a romantic relationship. And there was yet another rumor well known to those in the chamber that day: that McCarthy, married to prominent anti-communist activist Jean Kerr, not only had had sex with men but was enamored of one or both of his handsome young staffers.

Welch’s challenge to McCarthy seemed to turn the tide against one of the most prominent demagogues in modern American history. In December 1954, the Senate acted against their colleague. A coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans voted to condemn McCarthy for numerous offenses against the ethics rules and dignity of the Senate.

But McCarthy and Cohn were not the only prominent anti-Communists who gossiped and were gossiped about: unmarried FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deployed sexual rumors as weapons and, at the same time, seemed to have an unusually close friendship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson. As Beverly Gage and I discussed in Episode 6, the two were often seen double-dating with pretty women—dates that never seemed to result in heterosexual romance or marriage.

As historian Christopher Elias argues in his book Gossip Men: J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and the Politics of Insinuation (University of Chicago Press, 2021), these three men—Hoover, McCarthy, and Cohn—shaped right-wing politics in the second half of the 20th century, using gossip, insinuation, and rumor to intimidate their political opponents, even as their own personal lives were the objects of popular speculation. Arguably, these men also paved the way for the disinformation and lies that pervade today’s political media strategies, as well as the performances of brute masculinity that became a dominant feature of the Trump presidency. And as Elias points out, these tactics didn’t come from nowhere: they were close kin to a 20th-century tabloid and gossip magazine culture that Hoover, McCarthy, and Cohn leaked to—and were perpetually threatened by.

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