So fixated are we now on the divisions between the two major parties that we forget how often internal divisions within one party or the other shape political outcomes. A rich history could be written of the conflicts that have sundered presidents and congressional leaders of the same party, in some cases friends who turned into bitter foes. The Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, who probably had closer ties with the Senate than any other president before or since, tangled with Dixiecrats on civil rights and then with northern liberals, including his former ally Eugene McCarthy, on Vietnam. In 1990, House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, attacked George H. W. Bush for cutting a budget deal with Democrats and helped doom his reelection bid in 1992. It was Republican legislators who stopped George W. Bush’s attempt to reform immigration, helping wreck his second term.

David A. Nichols’s Ike and McCarthy is a well-researched and sturdily written account of what may be the most important such conflict in modern history: the two years, 1953 and 1954, when Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first Republican president elected since Herbert Hoover, found himself under assault from the demagogic senator who perfected the politics of ideological slander. Joseph McCarthy had begun his rampage against “subversives” in the federal government, some real but most of them imagined, during the Truman years, amid the high anxieties of the Cold War. Hostilities had broken out in Korea, and threatened to draw in “Red China” (which had been “lost” to the Communists in 1949) or escalate into a doomsday showdown with the Soviets, newly armed with the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, billions were being doled out in foreign aid to left-wing governments in Western Europe, and homegrown spies like Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg had been uncovered and exposed.

McCarthy was dangerous—“no bolder seditionist ever moved among us,” Richard H. Rovere wrote in his classic Senator Joe McCarthy—but much of the country was with him because he embodied, however boorishly, the forces of change. The Democrats had won every presidential election since 1932, and for much of that time had also enjoyed lopsided majorities in Congress. One party alone seemed responsible for the new postwar order, its failures as well as its successes, at a time of grand transformation for the country—from hemispheric giant to global superpower with commitments on every continent, and from land of rugged individualists to welfare state. For the new regime to flourish, Republicans had to make at least part of the agenda their own. Thus emerged the hope for a lasting bipartisan consensus.

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Eisenhower seemed a savior from central casting. He had guided 5 million Allied troops to victory in World War II and transcended grubby partisanship. He could have run on either party’s ticket and won; in fact, the Democrats courted him in 1948. But he was a Republican, and his victory in 1952 was smashing: 55 percent of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes. The trouble was his coattails. They were just wide enough to give the Republicans a one-vote advantage in the Senate—their second majority since the Herbert Hoover years, but not really a majority at all, Nichols explains, “because the conservative wing of the party numbered eight to twelve senators.” They were the aboriginal right—Old Guard isolationists and enemies of the New Deal. Many of them remained loyal to the incoming Senate majority leader, Robert Taft, who had lost the nomination to Eisenhower in a brutal contest, complete with allegations of delegate-stealing.

At first McCarthy, who had cleverly sidestepped Taft’s plea for an endorsement, said he was finished with his hunt for Communists in the government. In Eisenhower, “we now have a President who doesn’t want party-line thinkers or fellow travelers,” he told reporters. Henceforth his mission would be to root out “graft and corruption.” But this cause didn’t promise the attention he craved, the excitement and headlines that came with Red-hunting, the “permanent floating press conference,” as one writer has put it. Soon after Eisenhower took office, McCarthy reverted to his true self and began holding up high-profile foreign appointments—including Eisenhower’s choice for ambassador to Moscow, the Soviet expert Charles Bohlen. The delay was dangerous. Stalin died in early March, and no one knew who was in charge or where things would lead. The previous ambassador, George Kennan, had been recalled in October 1952, at the Soviets’ demand, leaving no one in his place to interpret Kremlin moves from the same close-up position. After a month-long delay, in late March Bohlen was confirmed.

It seemed to be reckless lone-wolfing, McCarthy defying his Senate masters. In fact, 10 other Senate Republicans had backed him. Eisenhower’s tight circle of advisers got the message. “The crowd that supported Senator Taft at the convention in 1952 are all now revolving around Joe,” said one of them, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Taft was quick to praise McCarthy’s “very helpful and constructive” attack on the Voice of America; soon McCarthy’s snarling adjutant, Roy Cohn, and Cohn’s sidekick, G. David Schine, went on a madcap European junket. The mission involved, among other things, inspecting America’s overseas libraries for subversive material, and the triumphant yield included work by Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville. Visits to countries on their route typically culminated in a Marx Brothers–style press conference, the babbling pair’s literary and cultural ignorance on display. And then, when Taft died, in July 1953, McCarthy was on his own. In February 1954, he announced a major speaking tour, paid for by the Republican National Committee. The party looked as if it was his as much as Eisenhower’s.

McCarthy had a second constituency—the media. To Eisenhower it seemed that the press, at once credulous and cynical, was building up McCarthy. In a speech to newspaper publishers, he accused journalists of cheap sensationalism, of presenting “clichés and slogans” instead of facts. Walter Lippmann, the most respected columnist of the time, was indignant: How could a responsible press not report what McCarthy said? The same quandary attends the media today, as they figure out how to handle “fake news” and the president’s intemperate tweets. Now, as then, no good solution exists. Implying that actual news is synonymous with truth is bound to be erroneous: In reality, journalism is the first, not final, draft of history—provisional, revisable, susceptible to mistakes and at times falsehoods, despite the efforts of even the most scrupulous reporters. The problems don’t end there. Those who covered McCarthy’s every move inevitably became his “co-conspirators,” as one of them, Murray Kempton, later said. “In the end, I did not feel any cleaner than he was … I pretended once again now and then that McCarthy was not a serious man; but I always knew that the devil in me and the larger devil in him were very consequential figures indeed.” It is a mistake journalists repeated in 2016.

Then as now, the press could achieve only so much, and for a reason that hasn’t changed. McCarthy was a political problem, not a journalistic one—a problem that could be solved in the end only by politics, by Eisenhower himself, who fooled almost everyone in deftly outmaneuvering McCarthy. Nichols is not the first to make this argument. But his timing is good. Americans have as much to learn today from Eisenhower as his many liberal critics did in 1954.

The first lesson is that Eisenhower defeated McCarthy through stealth. His efforts began in January 1954, exactly one year into his first term. Eisenhower’s inner circle had caught McCarthy and Cohn trying to secure favors for Schine, who had been drafted into the Army. The Army’s counsel patiently assembled a dossier of Cohn’s meddlings, which was strategically leaked to a Democratic senator and also to the press. Meanwhile, Senator Ralph Flanders—a Republican, just as Eisenhower had insisted it should be—denounced McCarthy in a strong speech. McCarthy’s approval rating dropped. The Republican leadership in the Senate, boxed in, had to schedule what we now remember as the Army–McCarthy hearings, in which McCarthy was teased into loutish excess by the attorney Joseph Nye Welch while the TV cameras rolled. The villain was undone, ultimately, by methods like his own.

Nichols is right to emphasize the remarkable composure displayed by the very proficient staff that Eisenhower, widely underrated as an amateur, had assembled. They figured out that “Joe never plans a damn thing … [and] doesn’t know from one week to the next, not even from one day to the next, what he’s going to be doing,” as William Rogers, the deputy attorney general, said. “He just hits out in any direction.” Leading him into self-destructive blundering was easy enough to do, but it couldn’t be rushed.

Nichols overdoes the D-Day parallels, but Eisenhower was a model of battlefield self-control. And the military analogy seems right. Eisenhower himself equated politics with war, both zero-sum games in which “it’s win or lose,” with nothing in between, and no points won for rectitude or grand displays of valor. Our moral instincts recoil at this. We want the righteous side to win and everyone to watch the victory unfold. This was true in the 1950s, too. Even seasoned observers, well schooled in the realities of politics, kept waiting for Eisenhower to denounce McCarthy. But he refused to comment in public, blandly explaining, “I never talk personalities.”

To those who wanted him to mount the bully pulpit in full battlefield regalia, Eisenhower seemed cowardly or even complicit, at best a “genial conciliator” (James Reston) and at worst a “yellow son of a bitch” (Joseph Alsop). It was catnip to Democrats. The Republican Party was “divided against itself, half McCarthy and half Eisenhower,” Adlai Stevenson said in a brilliant speech, raising the specter of Lincoln to taunt a president who had bought a homestead in Gettysburg. Publicly, Eisenhower laughed it off (“I say nonsense”). Privately, he had assessed McCarthy’s “demagogic skills,” Nichols notes, and shrewdly decided against “saying or doing anything that would make himself, not McCarthy, the issue.” He declined even to say McCarthy’s name, thus denying him the satisfaction of recognition. Hillary Clinton might have applied the same principle in 2016.

Eisenhower repeatedly said, and Nichols seems to agree with him, that McCarthy was nursing his own presidential hopes. This was a natural enough assumption, and many at the time shared it. But McCarthy lacked both the discipline and the ambition to run for president. His talk about a third-party campaign came late, according to David M. Oshinsky’s comprehensive biography. It was only after he was ruined in the Army hearings—and after his Senate colleagues prepared to censure him in December 1954—that McCarthy’s drink-addled thoughts raced, or stumbled, toward the presidency. McCarthy loyalists were realistic about his limitations. William F. Buckley Jr. and L. Brent Bozell, who collaborated on the best-argued defense of him, McCarthy and His Enemies, never considered him presidential material. In their view, he was doing valuable work, discrediting the middle-of-the-roader Ike, the liberal in disguise. The figure they had plans for was William Knowland, Taft’s handpicked successor as Senate majority leader.

Nevertheless, McCarthy fed the anti-government passions of the emerging conservative movement. Stevenson had been right when he said the GOP was splitting in two. Eisenhower represented its doomed moderate East Coast faction—the party of Thomas E. Dewey, the New York governor who lost to Roosevelt in 1944 and Truman in 1948. Its voice was the editorial page of The New York Herald Tribune, with cheerleading from Henry Luce’s magazines. McCarthy spoke to a newer constituency, based in the Midwest and, increasingly, the Sun Belt.

His supporters, whom Eisenhower called the “reactionary fringe,” were more numerous than the president supposed. The journalist Theodore H. White, traveling through Texas in 1954 to interview conservatives in “the land of wealth and fear,” including the new cast of oil billionaires, discovered articles of faith not recognized much in newsrooms or by broadcasters like Edward R. Murrow. One was that “Joe McCarthy is the senior patriot of the nation.” Another was that “both older American parties are legitimate objects of deep suspicion.” These conservatives were nominally Republican but were enrolled in “a nameless Third Party, obsessed with hate, fear, and suspicion—one of whose central tenets is that ‘if America is ever destroyed it will be from within.’ ”

Nixon felt more in tune with McCarthy than he did with the Ivy Leaguers on Eisenhower’s staff. (Bettmann / Getty)

At least one of Eisenhower’s “foot soldiers,” his vice president, Richard Nixon, sympathized with this outlook. Reluctantly, and on direct orders from “the general,” Nixon delivered a brutally efficient reply to Stevenson’s speech that essentially conceded the point that the Republican right was guilty of “reckless talk and questionable method.” Once again, McCarthy’s name wasn’t mentioned. But it was clear whom Nixon meant. McCarthy certainly knew. “That prick Nixon,” he grumbled, “kissing Ike’s ass to get to the White House.” It was indeed a profound betrayal of an ally. Nixon’s dogged pursuit of Hiss, from his seat on the House Committee on Un-American Activities, had helped inspire McCarthy to start his hunt for Reds. After Nixon moved up to the Senate, McCarthy opened a place for him on his own committee. They were bound in other ways, too—both drinkers and small-town products, tribunes of what would later be called Middle America.

“Nixon identified more with McCarthy,” John A. Farrell maintains in his deeply researched and sensitive Richard Nixon: The Life, “than he did with the ‘tea-drinkers’ on Eisenhower’s staff, who went to Ivy League schools and played effete games like bridge and tennis.” Farrell captures Nixon’s many competing selves while also holding him in steady focus as a creature of his time, almost uncannily so. Our vivid memories of Nixon’s demonic and seedy side, his crimes and cover-ups, obscure his initial image: He was a kind of clean-cut junior executive of the anti-Communist hard right, an off-the-rack suit mass-produced for suburban America. “McCarthyism in a white collar,” Stevenson’s cutting phrase for Nixon, was cited by Nixon’s admirers on the right as evidence that he was on the side of the angels after all and had sold McCarthy out only because Eisenhower had given him no choice.

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Nixon, too, would carry with him the memories of 1954 when he waged his own battle against Congress 20 years later, amid the slowly unfolding nightmare of Watergate. One lesson, borrowed directly from Eisenhower in his cat-and-mouse game with McCarthy, was to invoke executive privilege, which he did rather than produce the White House tapes. Nixon surrogates tried to depict Watergate as a new-model McCarthyism, with the media now cast as witch-hunters. But it was Republicans who did him in. Among the small contingent of Republicans who came to the White House to tell him it was all over—that he faced certain impeachment and conviction—was Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who had stuck with McCarthy to the end, and had then become the leader of the newly aligned Republican Party. When Nixon lost Goldwater, he lost the conservatives who now controlled his party.

Eisenhower versus McCarthy looked in its moment to be “one of the great constitutional crises of our history,” in Lippmann’s words. Perhaps. But more practically, it was a war within the Republican Party, and the battle was as much cultural as ideological. McCarthy wasn’t appreciably more or less anti-Communist than many others, Republicans or Democrats. He had no program to speak of and little interest in economics or in exploiting racial and religious fears. His enemy was what would soon be called the establishment—the policy elite in Beltway institutions. He attacked the CIA, the State Department, and overseas enterprises like the Voice of America.

His genius was for disruption. He was one of those “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs,” who, as James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers, “may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” What finished McCarthy was his rash decision to resume his attack on the executive branch with a popular Republican in office. Had Eisenhower not been so well liked, a national hero, McCarthy might have won. Demagogues sometimes do.