In 1950, Richard Nixon ran against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate. In this post, I’ll compare and contrast two authors’ portrayals of two public appearances that Nixon and Douglas made together. The first author is Irwin Gellman, who wrote The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946-1952. The second is Greg Mitchell, who wrote Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas—-Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950.
1. Nixon and Douglas appeared together at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. According to Gellman, Nixon showed the audience a one-hundred dollar check that he said he had received from Eleanor Roosevelt, along with a note from Mrs. Roosevelt that stated: “I wish it could be ten times more. Best wishes for your success & kindness regards to you & your lovely wife.” The audience gasped, then, according to Gellman, Nixon told his listeners that he, too, was surprised, until he learned that the Mrs. Roosevelt who wrote him the check was Eleanor B. Roosevelt, the wife of Theodore Roosevelt II. Gellman narrates that “The audience roared with laughter while Douglas fumed.”
According to Mitchell, however, there are actually two versions of that story, based on different descriptions of what happened. Mitchell says that this appearance by Nixon and Douglas was before the Press Club in San Francisco in May (presumably in 1950). In the first version of the story, Nixon told his audience that the check was from the Eleanor Roosevelt who was closely related to Theodore Roosevelt, not from the wife of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the second version, however, Nixon did not clarify to his audience which Eleanor Roosevelt sent him the check, “leaving his opponent and the audience to figure it out afterwards” (page 37). Douglas was confused and thus did not deliver her speech effectively when it was her turn to speak.
Both Gellman and Mitchell cite many of the same sources, such as Helen Douglas’ autobiography. Gellman even cites Mitchell!
2. Nixon and Douglas appeared together in Beverly Hills. Gellman based his story of this event on the testimony of Bill Arnold, who advised Nixon’s campaign. Gellman cites Arnold’s book, Back When It All Began. According to Arnold, Nixon came to the event on time and spoke first. Douglas was late, and when she went onto the stage, Nixon mocked her by “gesturing to his watch” (Gellman’s words on page 305). The audience laughed, and Douglas did not know why. When she spoke, Nixon was sitting behind her, and Nixon fidgeted and crossed his knees over and over to show that he was impatient. When she finished, Nixon got up to address the audience again. But Douglas left early rather than staying to listen to Nixon. Gellman states on page 305 that “Arnold realized that if this had been a debate, and if points had been awarded for speechmaking, his candidate would have won.”
Mitchell tells the story differently. According to Mitchell, the League of Women Voters invited Nixon and Douglas to a debate at the Beverly Hills High School one week before Election Day. Douglas accepted only after Nixon said that he could not attend due to another commitment he had made. But a Nixonite related that, actually, Nixon and his advisers on the night that the event would take place “left an out-of-town campaign appearance early and rushed back to Los Angeles” (Mitchell’s words on page 234). Roy Day and Nixon hid out at the Beverly Hills Hotel, while their car waited outside, and Nixon’s campaign manager Murray Chotiner went to the high school to listen to Douglas. When they heard from Chotiner, Nixon and Day rushed to their car and went to the event. At Nixon’s arrival, Republicans in the audience clapped and stomped their feet, disrupting Douglas’ speech. Nixon went backstage and sat behind Douglas while she was speaking, continually crossing his legs and looking at his watch. The audience laughed, and Douglas slumped her shoulders, answered just one question, then left, telling the audience that he had another meeting to get to. Nixon then “tore her to shreds”, according to Roy Day. Another witness said that Nixon called Helen Douglas “Mrs. Hesselberg”, which referred to the name of her husband (a Jew) before he changed it to “Douglas”. Some of the Democrats, some of whom were Jews, booed when Nixon said this, then, “according to Douglas backer Jean Sieroty, Republicans and Democrats nearly came to blows” (Mitchell on page 234).
Whom do I believe, when it comes to these accounts? Regarding the first appearance, I can see Nixon telling his audience that the Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote him the check was Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt II. Perhaps those who testified otherwise did not hear Nixon say that, either because their hearing or the acoustics was poor, or they were not paying attention. On the other hand, maybe Nixon did not tell them the identity of the Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote him the check, they learned which Eleanor Roosevelt she was soon thereafter, and, when they remembered the event at a later point, they conflated the event with learning about which Eleanor Roosevelt it was. Their memory mixed things up, perhaps.
Regarding the second appearance, both accounts look plausible. I tend to believe Roy Day, though. Bill Arnold may have remembered the event through rose-colored glasses, or perhaps he did not want to make Nixon look like an immature prankster, but rather as someone who was punctual. Roy Day, however, was just reminiscing about the good old days (in his eyes). On the other hand, could Roy Day have been exaggerating, the way that (say) some fraternity people exaggerate their feats? I don’t know.