WASHINGTON — Murrey Marder, a Washington Post reporter whose tenacious coverage of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade foreshadowed the senator’s downfall and disgrace, died March 11 at the Washington Home hospice. He was 93.
The cause was complications from a stroke last month, said his nephew Steve Marder.
Marder’s career spanned nearly eight decades, including World War II service as a Marine Corps combat correspondent. He joined The Washington Post in 1946 and distinguished himself on the so-called “Red Beat," the sensational trials and hearings about the alleged communist infiltration of government, Hollywood and other industries.
In his journalism history book “The Powers That Be," author David Halberstam described Marder as “the perfect choice for the assignment, quiet, intelligent, dogged and meticulous. There was nothing flashy about a Marder story, no one ever accused him of deft or imaginative prose, but he was above all else careful and fair."
Marder was among a cadre of print journalists — including Anthony Lewis of the old Washington Daily News and Philip Potter of the Baltimore Sun — who shunned a stenographic approach to reporting on McCarthy’s charges of spy rings and rampant security threats.
According to Halberstam’s account, Marder spent long hours at the office, agonizing over his stories to add nuance and perspective — often testing the patience of editors who wanted shorter, punchier articles. Not entirely as a compliment, future Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee once described Marder as “one of the world’s most thorough reporters."
To Marder, the stakes were too high to work any faster. As Marder and other journalists would later reveal, McCarthy, R-Wis., ruined lives and careers through threat and innuendo. His bully pulpit was the chairmanship of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
Marder’s biggest story came in the autumn of 1953, when McCarthy held closed-door hearings into an alleged spy ring at the Army Signal Corps laboratories at Fort Monmouth, N.J. After the hearings, as many as 42 people were suspended without pay. Many of them did not know the precise nature of the charges brought against them.
Marder spent a week at Fort Monmouth and learned that a vast majority of the security cases had already been investigated and dismissed by the Army. In an interview years later, Marder described the accusations as “even flimsier than most — reading the Daily Worker or (knowing) somebody who had gone to school with somebody else who was thought to be a Communist."
He called the charges the “dregs" of the security investigations from that era but noted that McCarthy “had built the thing so highly that it was sort of waiting for someone to come along and look at it. And nobody wanted to bother."
Marder laid out his findings in four stories in early November 1953. At a news conference soon afterward, he successfully pressed Army Secretary Robert Stevens to admit there was no evidence of espionage at Fort Monmouth.
Stevens’ confirmation was politically delicate. McCarthy was at the apex of his power, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower had yet to speak out forcefully against his fellow Republican.
Stevens was “a very timid man and had every reason to believe if he were too critical of McCarthy, he might not be supported by the president," said Anthony Lewis, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for his Daily News stories about people who had been removed from government service for alleged communist sympathies.
Lewis, who became a columnist for The New York Times, called Marder one of the key “avenging angels" against McCarthy’s tactics.
The Fort Monmouth episode was one of several attempts by the senator to target armed forces personnel for supposed communist leanings. It was a harbinger of McCarthy’s political demise in 1954 in a nationally televised showdown known as the Army-McCarthy hearings. The senator drew almost unanimously critical coverage and, that December, was censured by the Senate.