Ten years ago, George Clooney starred in and directed the most socially significant film he’s ever done. Good Night and Good Luck was about the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow and his confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy, the demagogue who ruined lives and careers by recklessly accusing people of being Communists.
The film is really about a lot of things – courage and values and the role of journalism. I often show it to classes. And if you know the film, you may remember that early on, Murrow turns to his producer, Fred Friendly.
“Ever spent any time in Detroit, Fred?”
he asks. There was a young man, not in Detroit, but Ann Arbor, named Milo Radulovich, a student trying to earn a degree in physics to become a meteorologist. He had served with distinction in World War II, and had a top secret clearance. But one day there was a knock at the door.
It was two Air Force officers. Milo was to be kicked out of the service, which meant he’d lose his benefits and have a stigma over his name. No, he had done nothing wrong. But his immigrant Serbian father subscribed to a newspaper from his old village, by then in a Communist country, and his older sister Margaret was seen as a left-wing radical.
She had picketed a big Detroit hotel for being unwilling to provide a room for the famous black singer Paul Robeson, and thought Communists deserved justice too.
George Clooney’s film features a brief except from Murrow’s interview with Margaret, then a stunning young woman pregnant with her first child.
She talked about what it meant to be an American. “Since when can a man be judged because of the alleged activities of a member of his family?” she asked, calling that a “fantastic” and disturbing trend.
Milo Radulovich was vindicated by Murrow’s show about him, though his career forever suffered and the stress meant he never finished his degree. One day last weekend I took lunch to his sister Margaret, who will be ninety soon, and her two surviving brothers.
I went with Mike Ranville, a retired lobbyist who eighteen years ago wrote a superb book about the case, To Strike at a King. Murrow died half a century ago. Milo died eight years ago, just before the U of M finally posthumously awarded him his physics degree. Margaret is in a wheelchair now. The last few years have been hard.
First Milo died, then the daughter she was carrying at the time of the show, then her athletic and trim husband Al felled by a sudden heart attack. But she still comes alive when we mention “the case,” which is how her family always referred to it, and can put her hands on her copy of the famous early TV show.
She is no longer active in politics. But she is proud of what her brother did, and of her parents, who came here from Serbia, and aware enough that when someone mentioned Donald Trump, she made a face. Not a nice face.
And I knew her well enough years ago that I’m pretty sure what she’d say about today’s climate of fear. She’d tell me,
“well, you know, we’ve seen this all before.”
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.