Monday, October 20, 2014

Partisan history at the Nixon library

I visited the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, for the first time this past weekend.

It was definitely interesting to see. The visual displays are good quality. The text of the signage, not so much. And there are life-size statues of world leaders with whom Nixon dealt that to me were the most interesting displays in the main museum. The Library is in the back of the house where Nixon was born. The house itself has been renovated and stocked with much of the furniture that was there at the time Nixon lived there as a child. The graves of Richard and Pat Nixon are also on the grounds near the house.

The docent I heard giving some of his tour added some extra authenticity to the tour. Because he was a guy in his late sixties or so who sounded pretty much like a Nixon partisan from 1969 or 1974. I arrived a little late for the start of the docent's tour. But the main reason I only heard some of it was that his anecdotes were so lightweight and he was so grossly partisan and his presentation was so painfully superficial that I just dropped back from the tour after a few minutes. Also, if I had followed his tour all the way through, I would probably have passed out from hyperventilation.

Nixon, me, Zhou Enlai

When I read the signage on the Alger Hiss display, I thought it was pretty shaky for a serious historical presentation. And I'm one who thinks that Hiss really was a Soviet spy. This signage on the 1950 Senate campaign against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas managed to not even mention the term "pink lady" so far as I could see. And I looked for it. And that is known as the Pink Lady campaign. You wouldn't know that term from this signage:

You also wouldn't know that's where he picked up the nickname "Tricky Dick" that stuck to him ever after. Not that I saw that anywhere at the Nixon Library, either.

Thomas Reeves gave a far better, brief description of the 1950 campaign in The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography (1982):

In California, Congressman Richard Nixon ran against liberal Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas for a Senate seat. Boasting of his own record with HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee], Nixon referred to his opponent as the "Pink Lady" and falsely claimed that she was "a member of a small clique which joins the notorious Communist party-liner Vito Marcantonio of New York in voting time after time against measures that are for the security of this country." Douglas fired back, "On every key vote Nixon stood with party-liner Marcantonio against America in its fight to defeat Communism," and she called Nixon and his followers "a backwash of young men in dark shirts." She spoke of"smears" and warned that "McCarthyism has come to California." But the fiery wife of actor Melvin Douglas was no match for Nixon. He distributed more than a half million leaflets (printed on bright pink paper and thus dubbed "pink sheets") titled "Douglas-Marcantonio Voting Record," alleging that the two had voted the same way 354 times. If Mrs. Douglas had had her way, he told audiences, "the Communist conspiracy in the United States would never have been exposed." ...

President [Harry] Truman spoke publicly about the elections only twice during the fall contests, once in defense of Helen Gahagan Douglas during a news conference. In a St. Louis speech a few days before the balloting he charged that those who employed the Communists-in-government issue had "lost all proportion, all sense of restraint, all sense of patriotic decency." Republicans, he said in disgust, were "willing ... to undermine their own government at a time of great international peril." (pp. 332, 334)
This display shows the infamous "pink sheet" ("Douglas-Marcantonio Voting Record"), much of it obscured by two other leaflets. For whatever reason, it comes out looking much pinker in the my photo here than it appeared to me in the case. I knew it was the "pink sheet" because I had read about it before. But the top of it was faded to almost white, and you had to look closely to see the pink tint at the bottom.

This display goes along with the partisan message in the text shown above. The leaflet on the left is pro-Douglas and accused the Nixon campaign of practicing the "big lie" technique: "Hitler invented it/Stalin perfected it/Nixon uses it." (So see, Douglas accused Nixon of being like Stalin, too! Both sides do it! And the Democrats started it!)

That sign is indicative of other aspects of the museum exhibit: it isn't so much that it's wrong - Douglas' Democratic primary opponents red-baited her, too - but it leaves a very incomplete impression of the historical significance of the campaign in Nixon's reputation and career by what it omits.

I'll give the Nixon library website credit for providing a more meaningful sense of the why that campaign made Nixon "Tricky Dick" ever after at the page on "The Senator" as of this writing:

In 1950, he defeated Democratic Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas to win California's vacant Senate seat by more than half a million votes. The campaign was fierce: Nixon, who thought the former actress was too sympathetic to left-wing causes, said Douglas was "pink right down to her underwear;" in response, Douglas labeled Nixon "Tricky Dick."
Even I don't recall having heard the "pink right down to her underwear" line before!

Stephen Ambrose in Nixon: Volume 1 - The Education of a Politician 1913-1962 (1987) described Douglas' politics this way:

Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former opera and Broadway star and the wife of movie actor Melvyn Douglas. An active New Dealer, she was first elected to the House in 1944, after attracting the attention of California liberals in speeches at labor rallies. Although generally regarded as a left-winger, she had spurned Henry Wallace's Progressive Party in the 1948 election, which was a litmus test for fellow travelers. On domestic issues she was a New Deal Democrat. But on foreign affairs her record was mixed. Although she had been critical of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists, she had voted against the Truman Doctrine program of aid for Greece and Turkey on the grounds that the effort should have been linked to the United Nations. She had also voted against HUAC appropriations, and had been one of its severe critics. One of her supporters was Ronald Reagan, a leader in the Screen Actors Guild and a registered Democrat. [my emphasis]
Yes, St. Reagan himself supported the candidate Nixon called "pink right down to her underwear."

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