Saturday, October 25, 2014

Early Nixon sleaze politics against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas

I've been learning more about the 1950 Senate campaign of Republican Congressman Richard Nixon against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas.

Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, 1945

Douglas was an actress and the husband of actor Melvyn Douglas. In 1944, she became one of the first women elected to the US Congress. The House history of Douglas presents this summary of her entry to Congress:

Douglas and her husband traveled frequently and witnessed firsthand Japanese militarism and European fascism in the 1930s. With international tensions on the rise, Helen Douglas set entertainment work aside and threw herself into public–service projects, becoming a member of the national advisory committee of the Works Progress Administration and a member of the California state committee of the National Youth Administration. She traveled frequently to the White House to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1940, she became a California Democratic national committeewoman—a post she held until 1944 - serving as the vice chair of the California Democratic central committee and as head of the women’s division. From 1942 to 1943, she was on the board of the California Housing and Planning Association.

In 1944, when six–term incumbent Democrat Thomas Ford announced he would retire from his seat encompassing downtown Los Angeles, Douglas entered the race to succeed her political ally. With Ford’s endorsement, she prevailed in the primary as the only woman among eight candidates, receiving more than 14,000 votes, versus about 5,200 for the runner–up.4 In the general election, Douglas appealed to African–American voters in her urban district. Her platform called for equal rights, labor rights, food subsidies, unemployment insurance for returning GIs, a revitalized farm security program, and income–based taxation for farmers and small business owners. She also advocated international cooperation. Her candidacy drew attention to equality for women. When asked about a woman’s place in Congress, Douglas replied, “Politics is a job that needs doing—by anyone who is interested enough to train for it and work at it. It’s like housekeeping; someone has to do it. Whether the job is done by men or women is not important—only whether the job is done well or badly.” Douglas ultimately prevailed over her Republican opponent, William D. Campbell, by a slim margin, 51.5 to 48.5 percent. As she established a reputation in the House, Douglas’s electoral support increased. In her subsequent bids for re–election in 1946 and 1948, she defeated her GOP challengers with 54 percent and 65 percent, respectively. [my emphasis]
Douglas was very much a New Deal liberal, in other words. Carey McWilliams wrote in 1945 ("Race Relations on the Pacific Coast" Journal of Educational Sociology Nov 1945):

Racial minorities in the United States have no more effective partisans in Congress today than such Southern California representatives as Helen Gahagan Douglas, Ellis Patterson, Ned Healey, Chet Holafield, Clyde Doyle, Gordon McDonough, and Cecil King (all from Los Angeles County); and George Outland from the Santa Barbara district. [my emphasis]
Greg Mitchell in his book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gagagan Douglas - Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950 (1998) relates this incident, which gives me a new sense of liking for Douglas: "She loudly hissed a colleague on the floor of the House - the powerful John Rankin of Mississippi - when he blamed many U.S. casualties in World War II on the ineptitude of Negro soldiers."

Rankin was one of the most obnoxious among many obnoxious white racists who served in Congress from the states of the former Confederacy. It's nice to hear that someone in Congress was treating him with the level of respect he deserved.

The House history of Nixon gives no information about his political positions in his Congressional years:

... attorney in Office of Emergency Management, Washington, D.C., January 1942 to August 1942; during the Second World War served in the United States Navy from August 1942 to January 1946 and was discharged as a lieutenant commander; elected as a Republican to the Eightieth and Eighty-first Congresses and served from January 3, 1947, until his resignation November 30, 1950; elected to the Senate for the term commencing January 3, 1951; subsequently appointed to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Sheridan Downey and served from December 1, 1950, until his resignation January 1, 1953, to become Vice President ...
As the Cold War got underway, so did the post-Second World War Red Scare, which we know today by the term McCarthyism, after the sleazy, red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Nixon became an enthusiastic practitioner of the Anti-Communism game, smearing his 1946 opponent, incumbent Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis in his 1946 race, Nixon's first political campaign. He continued it from his seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which concentrated on trying to smear Democrats and Communists and un-American more than investigating actual security threats.

And he took it to a new level in his Senate campaign against Douglas. That campaign should a ruthlessness and sleaziness in Nixon's approach to his political image that he would bring with him to the national stage. And would eventually bring him down. Nixon's 1972 opponent George McGovern described his early political career this way ("Nixon: The Last Word" Foreign Policy Autumn 1994):

During most of his political career, Nixon seemed to express himself in a contrived manner. It was never clear that he was speaking with any motivation other than political effect-- either to advance his own political fortune or to diminish a political opponent. He was too intelligent a man not to know that his first campaigns for office against Representatives Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas represented political demagoguery of the worst sort-unscrupulous attacks on the patriotism of deeply devoted public servants of the first rank.
Nixon in the California Senate campaign of 1950

In that 1994 article, a review of Nixon's book Beyond Peace (1994), McGovern reflected on the lasting, toxic effects of the particular brand of anti-Communism that Nixon pursued for much of his career:

There is no recognition in Beyond Peace that Nixon's interest in improving relations with the Soviet Union and China [during his Presidency] came after his quarter of a century of red-baiting against other politicians who had long advocated such a course.

If Beyond Peace has any one recurring and bothersome shortcoming, it is this inability or reluctance to acknowledge earlier errors in judgment.
But he was willing to rewrite the facts, exercising his signature casual relationship with truth. Mitchell relates that Nixon would later claim that Communism had not been "an issue at any time in the 1946 campaign. Few people knew about Communism then [?!?], and even fewer cared."

Mitchell does note that in 1946, Communism as an issue didn't have the salience that it did in 1950: "No candidate could run strictly on anticommunism (as Nixon would do four years later [against Douglas]) and win."

But he also describes some of how Nixon and his supporters actually campaigned against Voorhis:

From the start of the campaign, Nixon repeatedly pointed out that Voorhis had belonged to the Socialist Party in the early 1930s and charged that his voting record in Congress was "more Socialistic and Communistic than Democratic." The turning point in the campaign came, however, when Voorhis agreed to a series of debates. Nixon scored heavily when he falsely charged that his opponent had been endorsed by a "Communist-dominated" political action committee. ...

In the closing weeks of the campaign, anti-Voorhis smears circulated widely, none directly linked to Nixon headquarters and therefore all the more effective. One rumor warned that international Jewry was using Voorhis and other political leaders, such as Helen Douglas, to "destroy Christian America." The weekend before the election, many voters answered their phone to hear a stranger ask, "Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a Communist?" and then hang up.

When it was over, Nixon had won a smashing victory. A few months afterward he reportedly confided to a former Voorhis aide that "of course" he knew his opponent "wasn't a communist .... I had to win. That's the thing you don't understand. The important thing is to win." [my emphasis]
A high-school classmate of Nixon's, Merton Wray, described his view of Nixon's first two campaigns for office this way (Chapter 5 of The Young Nixon: An Oral Inquiry; Renée Schulte, ed; 1978)

Nixon showed a tremendous ability to sense the situation. He showed that same ability after the [Second World] war when he challenged Voorhis. The people were frustrated with the war. They lost sons in the war, and they wanted things to return to normalcy. They didn't want to make any further sacrifices; they wanted to build a decent society. But Voorhis had advocated the purchase of the Federal Reserve System, so the bankers decided to try to get rid of him. Nixon was sponsored by Mr. [Herman] Perry, the vice-president of what is now the Bank of·America. Hubert Perry's father sponsored Nixon and led the spirit to get rid of Voorhis. Nixon was able to take advantage of all the frustration that came after the war. He took advantage of it more during his campaign with Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was stronger then. There was already beginning to develop a frustration with our allies, the Russians - you know, they were reneging a little bit. Nixon was able to sense that, and he used that against Voorhis. That's where, in the campaign, they got the idea that the Communists were supporting Voorhis, whereas, in reality, the Communists were fighting Voorhis harder than anybody. [my emphasis]
I'm not sure where he got the idea that the Communists "were fighting Voorhis harder than anybody." I'm guessing not a lot of Communists were out there on the Nixon for Congress campaign in 1946. He may have been obliquely referring to criticism directed at Voorhis by critics of the Truman Administration's increasingly harsh foreign policy line against the Soviet Union. Stephen Ambrose cites the Communist Party's paper People's World criticizing Voorhis in 1946 and complaining, "Voorhis is against unity with Communists on any issue under any circumstances." (Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962; 1987) I don't know how hard they were fighting Voorhis, but it certainly doesn't seem like the Communist Party in 1946 was treating Jerry Voorhis as one of their friends! Voorhis had even sponsored what was known as the Voorhis Act of 1940 that required the registration of Communists. He certainly doesn't sound like a Communist, or even much of a civil libertarian.

But Ambrose confirms that Herman Perry was a local kingmaker in the Republican Party in Nixon's district.In fact, Ambrose calls him "the leading banker" and "the most influential man" in Nixon's city of Whittier."Perry had brought Nixon into the Young Republicans before the war and, by Ambrose's account, essentially anointed him to run against Voorhis in 1946. It was also in this campaign that he began working with campaign consultant Murray Chotiner, an important figure in Nixon's later career. Ambrose describes him in unflattering terms. "Chotiner was a sallow-skinned, fat, obsequious man, whose reputation far outstripped his actual influence. Variously described as the Machiavelli of California politics or as a master smear artists, he later became an important adviser to Nixon, and indispensable as a manager," though Chotiner seems to have played a limited role in the 1946 campaign.

Sleazy campaigning worked for Nixon in the Congressional race in 1946. "I had to win. ... The important thing is to win." He would fight dirtier in his campaign against Douglas in 1950.

1 comment:

jo6pac said...