Writing Thomas
Novelist Thomas Mallon does D.C.


As an occasional contributor to National Review, Thomas Mallon is literally one of our fellow travelers. That’s also the title of his seventh novel: Fellow Travelers, set in 1950s Washington, D.C., is formally published today.

Mallon frequently writes for The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and other publications; his non-fiction books include Stolen Words (about plagiarism) and Mrs. Paine’s Garage (about the Kennedy assassination. He has been the literary editor of GQ, the recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships, the winner of a National Book Critics Circle award for reviewing, and deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He lives in Washington, D.C., and recently took a few questions from NR’s John J. Miller, who is a big fan:

JOHN J. MILLER: We’ve all heard about the “Red Scare.” What was the “Lavender Scare”?

The Lavender Scare is the title of a well-done 2004 study by David K. Johnson that details the attempts–pursued with more or less bipartisan gusto–to rid the federal government and particularly the State Department of homosexuals during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Scott McLeod, who appears as a minor character in my novel, is a real-life figure, State’s security chief during Ike’s first term; he went on to become ambassador to Ireland after the fever over “sexual subversives” subsided. Were there Communists and homosexuals in the State department? Yes. The former, with due process, should have been gotten rid of; the latter should have been left alone.

MILLER: Why did you choose to write about this era?

MALLON: The Fifties have in some ways gotten a bum rap, and in other ways were just as awful as the clichés would have them. But I think they were a tremendously vivid time in Washington. For all the soothing serenity of Ike himself, the town was full of juicy, play-for-keeps characters on the main stage–with a whiff of impending nuclear apocalypse in the air.

MILLER: Joe McCarthy’s wedding figures in an early scene of Fellow Travelers. One of the characters asks, “What kind of guy picks lunch hour on Tuesday to get married in a church?” Well?

One who’s going places and is pressed for time. There have always been, of course, gay rumors about McCarthy himself–and his marriage, in middle age, to a much younger beauty queen has sometimes been regarded as a kind of oblique “substantiation” of them. I have no firm feelings on the point; his sexual nature in my book is the product of imagination. More interesting, it seems to me, is the much-observed disparity between the boozy, hail-fellow-well-met guy who apparently existed in private, and the earth-scorching machine that walked into the committee room. His legacy was awful–he made anti-anti-communism respectable, and for that conservatives should regard him with contempt, even as they continue to battle the liberal nonsense that would have one believe a preoccupation with Communism amounted to “hysteria.”

You describe how several of the Kennedys attended McCarthy’s wedding. Was little Ted among them? How close were the Kennedys and the McCarthys?

To read Joseph P. Kennedy’s statement on the death of McCarthy, you’d think the Pope had just passed on. The senior Kennedy admired him and contributed to him; the younger ones liked him. Jack Kennedy was able to duck the censure vote in ‘54 because of his back operation, but he attended McCarthy’s funeral at St. Matthew’s cathedral in ‘57. (JFK won his Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage later the same day–and his own funeral Mass would be said in St. Matthew’s just six years later.) Popular lore puts JFK at McCarthy’s wedding in ‘53, but I see no evidence for that in the newspapers. Joe Kennedy, Bobby, Jean and Pat–whom McCarthy dated at least once–were all at the reception. Nothing in my research for this book, by the way, changed my opinion of Bobby Kennedy: I continue to find him a tremendously unappetizing figure.

MILLER: RFK unappetizing? Didn’t you get the memo by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. on how to write about the Kennedys? I thought everybody who wrote for The New Yorker had to sign it.

MALLON: Bobby Kennedy’s conduct toward Lyndon Johnson was childish and despicable. As the years went on he displayed nasty, self-pitying, and messianic qualities that would have made him a dangerously authoritarian president. If he’d won the White House in ’68, I believe he would have left it early because of some much-bigger, much-uglier scandal than Watergate. As for The New Yorker: what would one do without the generous indulgence of editors everywhere? Back in the early 80s, National Review even ran a positive notice I gave to one of Gore Vidal’s essay collections.

At the end of one chapter, McCarthy says “goodbye to his visitors with a high, enthusiastic wave that parted the halves of his unbuttoned jacket and revealed the holstered pistol beneath.” Did McCarthy really pack heat in the Senate? Who do you think would win a fight–McCarthy or Sen. Jim Webb?

Page 586 of The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy, by Thomas C. Reeves, presents evidence that McCarthy was carrying a gun at the time of the Army hearings. In a duel with Webb, I’d bet on a draw. If they met at sunrise, McCarthy’s aim, even at that hour, would be compromised by drink. And at the last minute Webb would have one of his Coriolanus-like bursts of superiority and decide that he was just too good for the whole sordid business; he’d end up not firing at all.

MILLER: What’s the best book on Joe McCarthy and his legacy?

The Reeves biography seems pretty fair and measured to me. Reeves has also written a good book about Bishop Sheen–and one on Chester Arthur! (I consulted the latter for an earlier novel of mine called Two Moons.) William Bragg Ewald, Jr., who worked in the Eisenhower White House, wrote an interesting, very detailed account of the Army-McCarthy hearings called Who Killed Joe McCarthy? that I found useful.

McCarthy is a large presence in the book, but lots of other well-known figures make cameos: Nixon, Goldwater, and so on. There’s even a sly reference to WFB, whose magazine is “made possible by the family money of a crazy individual” (according to one of the novel’s left-wing characters).

MALLON: National Review came along, in ‘55, at the moment when American conservatism most needed it. I take a dimmer view of McCarthy that WFB did (and mine is further informed by fantasy), but Buckley’s magazine helped to undo some of the damage that McCarthy did to the anti-communist cause. National Review made conservatism look intellectually formidable; it halted its drift toward the fringe–a tremendous contribution.

I continue to hold a heroic view of Goldwater. Nothing could please me more than to see a resurgence of libertarian conservatism within the Republican Party.