I have four items for my write-up today on Greg Mitchell’s Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas—-Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950. It’s about Richard Nixon’s 1950 U.S. Senate campaign against liberal Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas.
1. My first item concerns how Douglas absorbed and communicated information. A friend of Douglas described Douglas’ absorption of knowledge as follows: “She doesn’t bother much with logical processes, she just wraps herself around an idea more or less in the way an amoeba wraps itself around a bit of food, a good nourishing way of absorbing information” (page 22). Douglas described her way of learning this way: “When you dig into a problem you will learn what you need to know, you will learn how to solve it, you’ll stumble upon authenticity and the people with the answers.”
For some reason, I’d expect for a person who absorbed information and made it a part of her to be able to communicate it in a clear, articulate, compelling, and seemingly authentic manner. Perhaps this is because I have read of people, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who were able to absorb information and then go on to communicate that information effectively. But that wasn’t entirely the case with Helen Gahagan Douglas. She was probably a good speaker on account of her experience in drama, but she tended to drone on and on about policy details. On page 34, we read about Douglas speaking by the hour in the hot sun about the 160-acre water limit—-which referred to a liberal law that “limited state-financed irrigation to farms of no more than 160 acres” and was “meant to give the small farmer a chance to survive in a state dominated by agribusiness” (page 29). Nixon, too, had a tendency to drone on, but he learned how to be more concise in his public speaking. Moreover, my impression is that Nixon communicated his views on policy in a clear and compelling manner. Some people have that talent. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have it. Paul Ryan sometimes has it, and sometimes does not. Newt Gingrich just overwhelms people with facts in his forums, but I don’t think that he breaks them down as well for public consumption as Clinton and Obama do.
2. My second item can be entitled “Mother issues”. Mitchell talks about Nixon’s relationship with his mother, Hannah Nixon. Richard was closer to his mother than the other brothers were, and Hannah speculated that this was because Richard, who was quiet, needed her more than his brothers did. When Hannah spent a lot of time away from Richard because she was in Arizona caring for Richard’s brother, Harold, who had tuberculosis, Richard resented her absence (or so Mitchell says). Mitchell refers to views that this tended to alienate Richard from women, made him more distrustful of people, and drove his ambition. (I should note that Nixon’s ambition was what attracted Pat Nixon, who initially was not attracted to Richard, but who later concluded that he was going places.)
Mitchell also briefly mentions Lyndon Johnson’s Mother issues. Unlike Nixon, Johnson was quite easy-going with women. He poured out his soul to them, and he flirted with them. Johnson’s friend George Reedy said that Johnson was vulnerable to women and poured his soul out to them because “They all reminded him of his mother.” Johnson was friends with Helen Gahagan Douglas, even though they differed on civil rights and labor, with Douglas being more liberal than Johnson. While Johnson flirted with Douglas, she was committed to her husband and her children. (UPDATE: I’ve not read Robert Caro’s book on LBJ, but, according to here and here, Caro argues that Douglas and LBJ had a romantic relationship.) Mitchell says on page 71: “Yet Lyndon Johnson, little known in California, could not help Douglas much in her Senate race.” Apparently, Johnson in 1950 was not the nationally-known figure that he would become in later years!
3. On page 53, Mitchell discusses Nixon’s finances in the 1950 Senate campaign. Mitchell says that “the Nixon campaign coffers were flush, but driving for more Democratic votes cost a lot of money.” Irwin Gellman, in The Contender, criticizes Mitchell’s claim that Nixon’s campaign had vast amounts of money, stating that Mitchell provides no evidence that Nixon had $4.2 million in his campaign coffers (Gellman 340).
I don’t know enough about Mitchell’s claim, for I haven’t yet gotten to that part of the book. I should note, however, that, on page 56, Mitchell refers to an article by Paul Jacobs in the June 17, 1950 New Leader that predicted that Nixon would have “ample funds, ‘a smear machine’ at his disposal, and a generally supportive press” (Mitchell on page 56). This, in my opinion, is significant because it’s a source from the time of the 1950 election that posits that Nixon would have lots of funds. Gellman, on page 458 of The Contender, says that (presumably in 1950) there were no newspaper accounts of a state-wide blitz of pro-Nixon billboards. That’s a valid point, but there was at least one voice in 1950 who envisioned Nixon as having lots of campaign funds.
On page 53, Mitchell says that Nixon tried to get a $5,000 donation from Owen Brewster, the head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, but the committee could not give money to a Republican primary candidate. Nixon kept asking, and so Brewster gave the money to lobbyist, gambler, and influence peddler Henry Grunewald, who relayed the money to Nixon. I checked the notes to see if Mitchell provided primary-source evidence for this story, and all I could see was his reference to Roger Morris and Fawn Brodie. I wonder if they have primary-source evidence. I’ll be reading Roger Morris’ book sometime down the road, so maybe I’ll see there.
4. The role of Murray Chotiner in Nixon’s campaigns has been controversial, since Chotiner’s campaign strategies were often quite aggressive and ruthless. Both Irwin Gellman and Stephen Ambrose contend that Chotiner’s role in Nixon’s 1946 U.S. House campaign was marginal. Mitchell acknowledges that Chotiner only worked for Nixon part-time in 1946, since Chotiner was also working on Bill Knowland’s U.S. Senate re-election campaign. But, according to Mitchell, Chotiner was the one who came up with the idea that “turned [Nixon’s] campaign around”, namely, to attack Jerry “Voorhis as a tool of left-wing labor PACs” (page 47). I could not find Mitchell’s documentation for that specific claim, though. Mitchell has notes, but they’re not always attached to specific things that Mitchell says.
Mitchell told a story about Chotiner’s relationship with California Governor Earl Warren, whose election Chotiner assisted in 1942. I was curious about this because I had a hard time envisioning Chotiner helping a liberal Republican like Warren, since my impression was that Chotiner liked candidates who could attack from the right. Essentially, after helping Warren, Chotiner went to Warren’s office to ask for a favor, and Warren threw him out!
Chotiner may have been for attacking from the right, but he was smart about it. On page 48, Mitchell says that Chotiner preferred using “state socialism” rather than “socialist-labor government” in attacking the Truman Administration because the latter would alienate labor unions unnecessarily. Chotiner also did not care for denunciations of the “welfare state” because the term “welfare” referred to human well-being, which is a good thing.