In Brief: ‘Point of Order’

In 1964, documentary filmmaker Emile De Antonio and art-film impresario Daniel Talbot edited the kinescopes of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, cutting down six weeks of testimony into the 97-minute film Point of Order. Film Forum is now reviving it (though April 16), and anyone young enough to wonder what McCarthyism was about, or anyone of any age trying to understand the more obsessional and bizarre elements of Kenneth Starr’s investigation of the president, should see this movie. Point of Order starts rather oddly and then grows more and more dramatic, confrontational, and wild, until it ends in complete dementia – McCarthy alone, in a Senate hearings room, ranting on and on about Communists in government as everyone walks out on him. The movie chronicles the disintegration of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy under public scrutiny. It also, by extension, unwittingly comments on the hysterical elements in today’s investigation of such threats to national security as oral sex and bookstore purchases.

In the spring of 1954, McCarthy was beginning to slide. In March, he had been denounced on the Senate floor by Senator Ralph Flanders, a Republican from Vermont; he had been critically profiled by Edward R. Murrow on CBS; and his claims of Communist infiltration were getting nuttier and nuttier. There were subversives, he claimed, in the State Department, in the CIA, in the nuclear plants; there were subversives everywhere, and the country was in danger of going Red. The immediate cause of the hearings – charges and counter-charges regarding a McCarthy staff member, G. David Schine, who had been drafted into the Army – now seems bizarrely irrelevant. But G. David Schine was only a pawn in a very serious game: McCarthy’s committee was beginning to investigate the citadel of respectability, the United States Army. In response, the Army hired ace Boston trial lawyer Joseph N. Welch, who did something very simple that nevertheless had the force of revelation: He subjected McCarthy and his aide Roy Cohn to the kind of cross-examination that anyone making charges in a criminal trial would face. For years, McCarthy had waved mysterious lists of subversives. Now Welch asked him: What is the source of your evidence? How was the evidence treated? Whom exactly are you accusing? And of what?

After the initial wrangling about the Army’s treatment of Schine, the movie turns into surreal theater – McCarthy, giggling madly, his vocal intonations drooping like molasses over the words, then rising to a high, querulous whine, seems as mad as a hatter, and Roy Cohn, hair slicked down, huge eyes shifting anxiously from side to side, looks like a baby gangster in an old movie. Welch’s humble-Boston-lawyer act is itself a prime piece of theater. Welch is actually as tough as nails; he baits and teases Cohn, and shreds some of McCarthy’s materials – a cropped photo, a letter denouncing subversives from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that turns out to be a phony. McCarthy, growing more and more angry, rumbles and makes threats.

And then it comes, The Moment: Grinning and giggling, McCarthy brings up the membership, years earlier, of one of Welch’s junior assistants in a Communist-front group. Welch hesitates, secures McCarthy’s attention, and then, with the whole nation watching, delivers a rebuke to the senator (“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”) that, in its phrasing and timing, its hesitations and ultimate certainties, is one of the most devastating pieces of rhetoric in American history. The rebuke is one of those supreme instances in which law and common sense come together – equaled in recent years by Senator Sam Ervin’s lecture on the Constitution to John Ehrlichman in the Watergate hearings and perhaps again by Judge Susan Webber Wright’s scathing dismissal of the Paula Jones claims.

After the hearings, McCarthy was finished: The Senate condemned his tactics the following fall by a vote of 67 to 22, and he died three years later. Watching this material – the paranoia, the irrationality, the bullying and toadying and righteousness – you may at times have trouble believing your ears and eyes. But in ten years, the investigation into Monica Lewinsky’s reading habits will appear no less peculiar.

In Brief: ‘Point of Order’