Kid Guthrie—I’m sorry, Andrew Guthrie—my pint-sized young protégé at the paper and I went to the memorial auditorium for Larry McKnight’s speech in November. It had been a little less than a week since the senator flooded the state with his press release about the Capital News and the Communist on its staff. Though he named no names, he meant me of course, Randall Harker, Dell for short, the city editor who happened to be writing a series on the sorry-ass job McKnight was doing in Washington.
I was mostly just chronicling his career—his disinclination to show up on the Senate floor even during important votes, his constant campaign-financing irregularities, the bribes he all but bragged he took from special interests. That and his character—his two volatile marriages and quickie divorces, his immense fondness for distilled spirits. The senator struck back just as the Chinese invasion of Korea claimed the lead in the News, so forgive me if we took too little space to defend ourselves in print. But our publisher John Tuckerman—a thin, stooped, aging gentleman socialist (he preferred the word Progressive) who wore English tweeds under a swirling mane of white hair—flatly denied McKnight’s vague allegations in a rare appearance on the editorial page. Nice of him, since it was his idea to attack McKnight in the first place.
Old Man Tuckerman, I have to hand it to him, warned me off the memorial auditorium. He said he didn’t like it, my going was a kind of provocation, it might be dangerous. (He didn’t mean it was dangerous for me, naturally, he meant it was dangerous for him and the paper.) He said the last thing we needed was for trouble to start with me there. When I told him it was my story and I was going regardless, he said if I went, he’d bust me off city desk. When I ignored him, he said to take that kid with the chin whiskers—and a fast car.
“If anybody,” he said, “and I mean anybody points a finger at you, or even looks at you too long, you hop in that car and—better yet, leave the kid outside at the wheel with the engine running.” As he talked, he took out some matches and stoked his pipe. “We can still pull this thing off, Dell,” he said between smacks on the stem, “if you don’t do anything stupid. The attorney general’s investigating the senator’s campaign finances, and the Republican leadership wants to bounce him in ’52. The whole point is: Get McKnight. For Pete’s sake don’t play to his hand.”
I shrugged and left for the meeting, the kid in tow.
The memorial auditorium sat on the edge of downtown, at the mouth of the North Side. From there out, till you reached farm country, the neighborhoods grew swankier and swankier, the houses bigger and bigger, the country clubs more exclusive and grandiose. The worst of the Republican big money and the best of the Progressive old money lay there. Out there, they all drank cocktails together, played tennis together, golfed together, planned for the education of their children, and seduced each other’s wives. The few friends my father once had in Capital City lived out there now, too, but I never saw them.
And neither did McKnight. Oh, there may have been a couple of lawyers from the North Side there that evening who also happened to sit on the state Republican central committee. But most of the crowd came from the western suburbs and the South Side—the Knights of Columbus, and the Shriners, and the small businessmen, a few chamber-of-commerce types, a real estate agent or two. And lots of women, lots of married women, who joined the PTA and played bridge and canasta and had their hair done just for the occasion. Tonight, they brought the children.
The rest of the press was already there, and some of the boys got uneasy when the kid and I showed up. The memorial auditorium was a modern affair with a sweeping domed ceiling, concrete walls, and a blond-wood plank stage. Behind the podium, in cheap tile and pale washed-out red, white, and blue, was a mosaic of the American flag. The place was filled, the atmosphere relaxed, like a high school talent show. I heard a steady buzz of neighborly conversation, the occasional squeals of tykes trying too hard to have fun, and rare barks of discipline. The lights were up, and people looked around in the glare to see who they knew.
I knew McKnight mostly from photographs—the picked-over glamour shots of newspaper copy—but I had seldom seen him in the flesh. I got that mild twinge I always get when I come across the abstract people I write about in all their corporeal splendor. Real bodies can sit, for example, on a metal folding chair in a row of folding chairs behind a podium, and twitch, and shift position, and lean over trying to make strained conversation with persons left and right. McKnight wore a dark, conservatively cut, not especially expensive suit, a white shirt, and a blue club tie. He sat with his legs crossed, one hand always resting on his top knee as he flopped legs back and forth between the older, graying man—the geezer no doubt condemned to introduce him—and a younger, severely handsome, swarthy guy I took to be his aide, Daniel “Slick” Freeman.
McKnight was shorter than I had imagined, around five foot nine. He had black well-oiled hair, parted low on one side, the other combed straight back across the top over a bald spot. A string seemed permanently to dangle down on his forehead, dangerously close to the right eye, and he constantly pushed it back with his hand. He had a cowlick grease failed to conquer. If I had ever been tempted to buy a used car, McKnight would have been the man I expected to find standing across the hood from me.
He saw us come in while he was talking to the older man, but he did not let on. When he finished what he had to say, we were already seated, and he turned to Freeman to point us out, but before he did, he took one long, hard look at me. His face was sardonic, and his eyes—if I had been close enough to see his eyes—would hold the look of the huckster who has just spotted a newlywed walk onto the lot with his wife. His tongue flicked out across his lower lip, wetting it some more, as he smiled and spoke to the aide. Freeman’s eyes, dark and luxurious even at this distance, shot up immediately, involuntarily, at us.
The introductions consisted of mindless patriotism and half-baked eulogy. Some of us pledged allegiance to the pale-tile flag, and the gray-haired geezer, president of the city’s chamber of commerce, told a lot of silly jousting jokes playing with McKnight’s name. Finally, having spent what little dignity he possessed, the local joker gave, broadcast-commercial style, a brief pitch for free enterprise and the American way. The lights, which had remained up during the introduction, went down when McKnight rose to speak. Under the concentrated illumination of the stage, I noticed for the first time McKnight’s eyebrows. As he sat and talked casually to Freeman on the platform they were unremarkable enough, but when he spoke to the crowd they both arched dramatically, adding to the weasel-like sharpness at the center of his bloated face and to the satanic grin he deemed appropriate for his stance as a political crusader.
Later, of course, his voice and manner of speaking would become famous. All good Americans would recognize the fast, blurred, almost monotonous tone and the long, rambling, illogical style that occasionally built to a kind of ersatz intensity before he made some wild, sensational charge. The national press would claim average folks found him exciting. But that night he was still a local phenomenon, a fast-talking, small-town businessman who had somehow been elected to public office. And the audience was bored. They were bored as he repeated the charges he had made in his week-old news release. They were bored during his dissertation on the evils of International Communism. They were bored as he outlined the plot hatched by Stalin and those Soviet stooges, the Red Chinese, to conquer the world starting with Korea.
Then he stopped his slurred monologue and carefully poured himself a glass of water.
“I have here,” he said, “I have here in my hand a photostatic copy of an editorial written by Mr. John Tuckerman, owner of the Capital News. The editorial is dated March 14, 1941.”
He pulled the paper down and held it out in front of his face, as if he were straining to read it. “And in this editorial, Mr. Tuckerman says, and I want to quote this to you. He says: ‘Now let’s get down to cases. Mr. Harker—’ and by that he means Red Randall Harker, the same Red Randall Harker who now works for Mr. Tuckerman as his city editor—he says, ‘Mr. Harker is a Communist, and I defy him to publicly deny that statement.’”
It was the same kind of crap he’d been tossing around for ten minutes already. And I doubted very seriously that he held in his hand anything but another page of the speech the polished young Freeman had written for him, or even that five people in our crowd knew what photostatic meant. But the difference was this: he had supplied a name and now he had his audience. A breeze of hushes silenced the restless noise of the children.
“And let’s get down to cases. Before I came here tonight—early this morning, in fact—I sent Mr. Tuckerman a wire. And in that wire, I told him, I said, ‘Mr. Tuckerman, I have a question to ask you. WERE YOU LYING—’” The shout made most of us jump, and almost immediately one or two of the children started to cry. McKnight went on: “Were you lying, I asked, when you said Harker was Capital City’s leading Communist? If so, I said, tell us, please tell us WHEN HE CHANGED. And I did even more than that. I got down to cases. I went even further than he did in his editorial. I did not merely challenge him to publicly deny that he made that statement. No, I URGED him that if a single word of what I say is not the truth, I URGED him to sue me for libel, and I will gladly pay the damages.”
Yep, he’s got us now, I thought. Right in the wallet. I had been with Tuckerman all day, and no such wire had come for him. Still, McKnight had those of us in the audience now, in the moment, regardless of what I could disprove tomorrow.
“Let me quote something else to you,” he said, frenetically searching through his notes. Since I was positive that whatever he was looking for did not exist, the search must have been an act. But it was convincing. Why would a man act out incompetence, why would he openly reveal how unprepared he was?
“Let me quote you something else. Only this time let me quote you something from a great American—J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. I know Mr. Hoover personally, and he is extremely concerned about this case. Extremely concerned about what is happening in communities like this all over this great country. Here it is, here it is.” Again, he held a sheet of his speech out as if he were reading it. “Mr. Hoover says, ‘The primary aim of the Communist Party at the present moment in the United States is to plant party members in important newspapers and radio stations, especially in college towns.’ Now think about that—did you know that in addition to the Capital News, Mr. John Tuckerman owns controlling interest in your city’s major radio station, KNET?”
I finished his thought for him: And the renowned and progressive University of Wapsipinicon was just down the street. Every person there could finish that thought for him, now, or tonight at home, or tomorrow on the way to work. Yes, he had brought his bottled fear home for us. Now, he went in for the kill. “Now I don’t want to frighten anyone here tonight,” he said. “And when I tell you what I must tell you, now, I want you all to remain seated. And I want you all to remain calm. But you read the papers, and you know what’s been happening with the labor unions in this state and around the country, the strikes, the violence, the threats. So, I have to tell you this TO PROTECT MYSELF. Let me say now that when the time comes that I quit exposing things because I might bleed a little in return, I promise you here tonight, I will resign from the United States Senate. There is someone here tonight, right here in this audience, who would do me great harm if he thought he could get away with it. Yes, out there among you, in the dark, maybe sitting right next to you, is a Communist—”
The whispering and the sporadic whimpering, and the hushings, created a kind of tremor through the audience.
“You better go start the car,” I whispered to Guthrie. “Now.”
“Right, Chief,” he said.
“Yes, he is here tonight. Let’s have the lights up! Turn them up so we can see him! Yes, Red Randall Harker! The very man we’ve been talking about!”
The lights came on. If folks did not know where to look to find me, the boys in the press made it clear enough. And as the eyes of the crowd began to search me out, a reporter no doubt on McKnight’s payroll made it final by pointing and shouting, “There he is!” A couple of the women screamed out, the way they used to on dates at a double-feature horror show, and I remember worrying how I was dressed.
“I want that man searched!” McKnight shouted. “I want him searched!”
As the shock of light wore off and I could focus on the faces around me, I got a very, very unpleasant feeling in my gut. These people—these housewives and shopkeepers—seemed to suffer from paralysis, from the slowness of action you find in dreams. Or was it me, me who felt the leaden clamp of fear, the unreality of the moment? I should have known, I told myself. I should have figured that if McKnight was getting to me, his effect on those who knew nothing about the dark alleys of real politics would be that much worse.
I was surprised to find myself standing. I could not remember having stood. Then, I saw the men hanging around the back entrances moving down the aisle toward me. Oh, they would search me all right, and they would find on me, no doubt, one of the guns they now carried under their own coats.
I looked at McKnight and said as calmly as I could, “I am a U.S. citizen. Where is your badge?”
He smiled sarcastically. He said: “Oh, so you are a U.S. citizen? Okay, boys, you better forget it. Let Comrade—I mean Citizen Harker hide behind his legal rights. He would not dare to try anything against me here, now. But Citizen Harker, before you go…”
I had already started to move awkwardly down the row toward the aisle. The crowd was buzzing now, and people jerked their legs out of my path—but, at least, they were letting me pass. I stopped in the aisle and turned to face McKnight’s ellipsis.
“Since your boss, Mr. Tuckerman, does not like to answer inquiries,” McKnight said, “I’ll ask you. I’ll ask you to do the same thing he asked you to do back in 1941. Only, I’ll ask you to answer the question in the proper way. To answer the question Congress will put to you if we are ever fortunate enough to get you out there in Washington, D.C., on the witness stand. The question all Communists refuse to answer. Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”
To this barrage, I responded: “I am not a member of the Communist Party.”
“That’s not the question!” he shouted as I walked out. “That’s not the question! The question is, were you a—”
Outside, I took a long breath and thought about the crowd. They had sat there, frozen. By that clown. Guthrie pulled up, and I got in the car. Before he could ask what happened, I said, “Let’s get out of here. Tuckerman’s not going to like this.”
From Estranged by Charles Lamar Phillips. Used with the permission of the publisher, Regal house. Copyright © 2020 by Charles Lamar Phillips.