My latest reading of Irwin Gellman’s The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946-1952 was about Richard Nixon’s 1946 campaign against Democratic congressman Jerry Voorhis for Voorhis’ congressional seat. My post tomorrow will look at the narratives about the campaign that Gellman attempts to refute. In today’s post, however, I’ll mention other things about Gellman’s narration of the race that interested me.
Jerry Voorhis was a devout Christian and became a New Deal Democrat after he was a socialist and a pacifist. He was born into a family of privilege, but he “rebelled against the family fortune” after his graduation from Yale by living among the poor. Voorhis later established a number of schools for boys who were homeless. From what Gellman narrates, Voorhis was close to his father, Charles, who offered his son political advice. Charles had a Republican background and feared Communist incursion into labor unions, yet he was satisfied with President Truman, calling him a “conservative liberal”, and he liked that his son had moved towards the middle. When I read about Charles, I thought about my own admiration of President Barack Obama for moderate and conservative reasons, such as my admiration for Obama’s willingness to listen to different ideas, as well as Obama’s reform of health care, which contains a number of conservative proposals (i.e., the health insurance mandate, an attempt to move Medicare from fee-for-service to a focus on quality, etc.). When many look at Obama, they see a liberal, as many probably did when they looked at Voorhis. But there are many, like me, who notice moderate and conservative aspects to Obama’s approach and policy-proposals, and this is probably what Charles Voorhis saw when he looked at his son.
The New Deal was controversial in Voorhis’ district. On page 48, Gellman refers to a Republican named Kyle Palmer who “praised Nixon for calling for the elimination of the Office of Price Administration; it damaged rabbit growers because the agency raised the price on feed by 50 percent, but it did not let growers increase the price for rabbits.” Nixon himself worked for the OPA prior to his service in World War II, and Gellman states on page 21 that Nixon at that time “recognized the need to supervise the supply and demand for scarce products during a time of national emergency, but also saw the inefficiency that was part of a large organization that often fell prey to its own inertia.”
Communism was another major issue. Voorhis himself had anti-Communist credentials, for he served on the House Committee on Un-American Activities and “led in the passage of the Voorhis Act in 1940 that required any political organization controlled by a foreign power or engaged in military activities aimed at subverting the American government to register with the Justice Department” (page 36). Voorhis also was critical of Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, Henry Wallace, because Wallace had opposed Truman’s foreign policy for being too tough on Communism. But there were conservatives who did not feel that Voorhis was tough enough on Communism, for Voorhis did not want for HUAC to be permanent. Moreover, there was controversy about Voorhis’ relationship with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which was experiencing Communist incursions. Voorhis did not accept financial contributions from the CIO, but he was criticized because people in the CIO endorsed him.
Regarding the CIO, I found what Gellman said on page 52 to be interesting: “…even some of the Communists’ severest critics, according to the labor historian Robert Ziegler, ‘have conceded that Communist-influenced unions were among the most egalitarian, the most honest and well-administered, the most radically aggressive, and the most class conscious.” I have to admire people who try to live up to their ideals, at least the positive ideals. A number of Communist societies were far from egalitarian, but were like the pigs’ society in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: they preached egalitarianism, but in reality some were considered to be more equal than others! At least some of the Communist-influenced unions in the U.S. sincerely pursued egalitarianism. They may have been fanatical, but they practiced what they preached!