Writing history is not as easy as people sometimes think. Many assume it’s simply a matter of assembling a jumble of facts in chronological order, lacing the narrative with insights borrowed from academics and other authorities, throwing in one or two truly sensational details, and then rounding it all out with comparisons to contemporary events to make it relevant to readers. In fact, though, the real labor of history has little to do with writing down the brute facts of the past. It’s about understanding why people back then acted or spoke as they did, which means understanding the context in which events arose and unfolded. Explaining this context to readers is hard work and doesn’t come as easily as praising or blaming historical figures for what they did or didn’t do.

Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that former Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye has put this kind of thoughtful work into his new biography, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. Senator McCarthy’s notoriously obsessive search for Communist agents in the federal government gave birth to one of the most chilling “‑isms” in modern political language: McCarthyism. Tye has bravely ventured into the McCarthy papers at Marquette University, which are largely a giant scrap heap of news clippings and copies of speeches. But he shows no

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