I have three 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.
1. When I was blogging through Irwin Gellman’s The Contender, I quoted something that Gellman said on page 289 about the 1950 U.S. Senate race between Richard Nixon and Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas (see here):
“The U.S. Senate contest in California during 1950 has been the stuff where legend has replaced fact. ‘Tricky Dicky’ smeared Helen Gahagan Douglas, the ‘Pink Lady,’ thus relying on the anti-Communist hysteria to propel the dirty trickster into the upper House. The record, however, paints quite a different scene. Helen Gahagan Douglas was far to the left of many Democrats, let alone Republicans. Besides her close attachment to New and Fair Deal policies that the majority of her party was abandoning, she ran the campaign without the benefit of an effective statewide staff, clearly defined strategy, or an adequate fund-raising scheme. Along with these Herculean disadvantages, a large segment of the Democratic Party had rejected her unswerving advocacy of liberalism. By the time of the general election, she had been thoroughly smeared, not by Nixon but by her own party. Faced with widespread Democratic desertion that she was unable to prevent, Douglas never united the warring factions of the Democratic Party to battle against the Republican enemy. Her painfully inept stewardship—-not Nixon—-guaranteed her demise.”
While Greg Mitchell (in contrast to Gellman) portrays Richard Nixon as someone who ruthlessly exploited widespread anti-Communist sentiment to defeat Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950, Mitchell, like Gellman, believes that there were other factors that contributed to Douglas’ loss, some of which were Douglas’ fault. Like Gellman, Mitchell acknowledges that Douglas endured a rough primary, as she was attacked by her Democratic opponents for allegedly being soft on Communism. Like Gellman, Mitchell states that Douglas had difficulty getting support from a number of Democrats, since she was deemed to be too far to the Left; Mitchell also discusses the factor of sexism, something that (as far as I remember) Gellman did not really address. Gellman and Mitchell both argue that Douglas pursued a poor strategy when she tried to exploit the anti-Communist issue herself, as she contended that some of Nixon’s votes in the U.S. House overlapped with those of Vito Marcantonio, a far left Congressman who was believed to have pro-Soviet sympathies, for anti-Communism was Nixon’s territory: who would believe that Nixon was pro-Communist, when he was the one who brought down Alger Hiss?
And Mitchell tells about another decision that Douglas made that did not particularly help her campaign. Douglas, after she won the Democratic nomination, was in a capacity in which she could recommend nominees to President Truman for federal offices in California. She recommended a number of liberals for a federal judgeship there, to no avail. She then learned that Truman had nominated William Byrne for the benefit of her campaign, for Byrne was a Roman Catholic and a “friend of the powerful (and politically conservative) archbishop of Los Angeles, J. Francis McIntyre” (page 92). If Douglas could call McIntyre and take credit for recommending Byrne to Truman, she could get more Catholic support in California. But Douglas had reservations about Byrne, for “She suspected that Byrne was the candidate of Ed Pauley, the Los Angeles oilman close to Truman (and, lately, to Nixon)” (page 92). She apparently did not call McIntyre, “and McIntyre would work miracles for Nixon” (page 92). Douglas appears to have held fast to her principles, but that did not help her politically.
2. Nixon’s strategy was to argue that there was a significant overlap between the votes of Helen Gahagan Douglas and the far-left Vito Marcantonio in the U.S. House. I talked in my post here about Stephen Ambrose’s discussion of the claim by reporter Earl Mazo that Marcantonio did not like Douglas and actually encouraged Nixon to beat Douglas by appealing to the similarity of her votes with those of Marcantonio. Mitchell appears to accept the narrative that Marcantonio did not like Douglas, and Mitchell speculates that this could have been because “he resented that she had become a national hero of the left without spending years in the trenches as he had” (page 106). Moreover, according to Mitchell, Marcantonio and Nixon were actually friendly with each other. On page 105, Mitchell states, in what I consider to be a beautiful passage: “Nixon and Marcantonio were friendly foes on the Hill. Each knew where the other stood on practically every issue, and each granted the other grudging respect for sticking to his principles. Marcantonio was wrong about nearly everything, Nixon believed, but sincere and not a political opportunist.”
3. On pages 107-108, Mitchell has a profound passage about the struggles of political reporter Mary Ellen Leary to succeed in what at the time was a man’s world:
“From the start, her male peers warned that she could not expect to have the ‘same relationship’ they enjoyed with politicians, a cozy one built on drinking or playing cards. It took her two years to discover that she was routinely excluded from dinner parties where politicians, lobbyists, and reporters mingled, and she was furious when Governor [Earl] Warren kept her off invitation lists. On balance, however, she felt she benefited from a more ‘healthy’ relationship with her subjects and believed that as a woman she ‘listened better’ and got more out of them in interviews.”
I like how Leary was able to capitalize on her strengths in spite of the barriers that were in her path. This is not to suggest that discrimination is not a problem and that women should be able to circumvent it by their talent. That’s not what I’m saying. Rather, I’m expressing admiration for someone who was able to capitalize on her assets. I am not discriminated against, but I have barriers to my success on account of my Asperger’s Syndrome. But the question that I need to ask myself is: What are my strengths, and how can I capitalize on those? How can I use who I am to succeed, the way that Mary Ellen Leary used who she was—-a journalist who listened—-to be a good political reporter?