Many Americans remember the 1950s as a banal time of sock hops and drive-ins, but the decade began badly, with a nasty war in Korea, constant friction with China and Russia, and bitter sniping between Republicans and Democrats, who were no longer interested in the consensus that had led America to victory in World War II. In the final two years of Harry Truman’s presidency, the nation’s capital turned angry and dysfunctional. Congress and the White House were at odds; financial scandals plagued the administration; and an ugly new politics of bullying, perfected by Repulican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, was rising quickly.
McCarthy’s favorite target was the State Department, where he claimed to know of more than 50 “card-carrying Communists.” As the Red Scare deepened, McCarthy and his allies also pursued an aggressive “Lavender Scare,” concentrating on public servants who were gay in a time that was deeply closeted. Hundreds resigned or were fired.
This was the chaotic state of the country in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower decided to run for president. Typically, presidential campaigns are all about noise and change, but Eisenhower instinctively understood how deeply Americans wanted to calm down and get back to normal, and his intuition proved to be correct. As Joe Biden finishes up the last few weeks of his campaign, in a country marred by hyperpartisanship and disorder, he could do worse than to study the quiet way Eisenhower helped his party to win.