For my blog post today about Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Morris says on page 309. The context is Richard Nixon’s run for Congress in 1946 against Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis.
“From the outset, Richard Nixon was plainly conscious of a line between propriety and taint in such political contributions, even in an era of virtually no legal accountability. Roy Day told the story of a railroad industry lobbyist who had come up to him during the primary and pressed five hundred-dollar bills into the manager’s hand. ‘When I gave the money to Dick, he looked me straight in the eye for about twenty seconds—-as if he were thinking hard about something,’ Day recalled. Then Nixon had said, ‘Roy, I want you to give the money back….If they want to give to my campaign, they know where my treasurer is. I won’t take it this way.’ Yet the campaign treasurer’s reports to Sacramento were notoriously incomplete. And the candidate knew of these discrepancies, just as he knew, in careful, commanding detail, about other minutiae of the race. If he did not keep the bills Day handed him, he could reason, if the stream of cash did not appear in the books, it was all somehow not a political contribution. Most of the lavish 1946 financing was never acknowledged. Richard Nixon’s furtive, mincing attitude toward public money, the gradual atrophy of ethics that ended so plainly thirty years later, began in the first campaign.”
I have three items.
1. Overall, Morris portrays that particular 1946 Congressional race as an effort by well-off special interests to unseat Jerry Voorhis, a progressive Congressman who was not afraid to go against them. Morris actually opens his first chapter on the 1946 race by discussing an incident in 1943 in which Jerry Voorhis went to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and denounced a government contract that would give Standard Oil free and exclusive access to the coveted and “vast U.S. Navy petroleum reserve at Elks Hills in central California” (page 257). The deal got cancelled, and Voorhis received acclaim, both from The Washington Post and also a conservative colleague, Carl Vinson of Georgia. It’s not surprising to me that a conservative would applaud what Voorhis did, since libertarians are quite critical of the government giving certain companies special favors, thereby hindering competition. I should also note (and I’ve noted this before in posts, but I just love noting this) that John Bircher Gary Allen, in Richard Nixon: The Man Behind the Mask, actually praised Voorhis, even though I’m sure that Allen disagreed with many of Voorhis’ ideas. I wouldn’t be shocked if Voorhis’ stand against Standard Oil was one reason that some of the John Birchers would like him, since Rockefeller was one of the John Birch Society’s main boogeymen.
Morris narrates that this incident with Standard Oil would soon be forgotten due to World War II, and yet Morris talks about the other progressive ideas that Voorhis had: Voorhis fought to subject insurance companies to antitrust laws, he helped engineer a reform that would save billions of dollars for the taxpayers by mandating that the Federal Reserve hand over most of what it earned to the government, he planned public housing programs that scared real-estate industrialists, he supported motion picture artists and workers against Hollywood studios, and he alienated the liquor industry by proposing to temporarily divert grain from alcohol production to “humanitarian relief in the famines following World War II” (page 261). The list goes on. While Morris admits that Voorhis was often a lone idealist, it does seem that Voorhis had enough influence that he could upset the ambitions of certain special interests. Or, at the very least, special interests wished that they had a represenative from Voorhis’ district who would represent their concerns in the U.S. Congress, not Voorhis. Signal Oil would donate to Nixon’s campaign, and, according to Morris, this was because Voorhis was the main one pleading against giving offshore oil to petroleum companies, an idea that (to the companies’ dismay) President Harry S. Truman would veto.
According to Morris, Republicans were looking for a candidate to defeat Voorhis for years, but the people they usually found were ineffective. And this was in a district that had been gerrymandered to favor Republicans (at least somewhat). One of them, Roy McLaughlin, an oilman, appealed to labor in front of the “more affluent audiences” of the district, and Roy Day (who would work for Nixon) said that McLaughlin “did everything he could to discourage anybody that had over fifteen cents in the bank” (Roy Day, quoted on page 272). I remember reading in Irwin Gellman’s The Contender that Voorhis actually had to introduce his opponent to his audience one time because his opponent was so shy! In Nixon, however, Republicans found one who was a good speaker, who had enough political savvy to play to the audience, and who was a recent Navy man. Moreover, while Nixon was rather conservative, Morris acknowledges that Nixon even in 1946 would do what he did in subsequent races that he would run: Nixon appealed to moderates, not just conservatives.
2. That passage on page 309 that I quoted at the beginning of this post was about Nixon’s ethics. According to Morris, Nixon would often play around on the “gray margin of propriety, and sometimes beyond” (page 275). On page 275, Morris gives an example: Nixon needed to get back to California from Baltimore so that he could meet with the committee that was asking him to run for Congress, and he used the air-travel card of a company “whose contract terminations he had negotiated” (page 275). Nixon paid the company back, and what he did was technically legal. But Morris believes that Nixon was on the “gray margin of propriety”.
What’s interesting about the passage on page 309 is that Nixon there appears to express moral qualms about accepting money informally. That’s the Nixon whom I see in the books that Nixon wrote: one who was committed to moral propriety. While many would laugh this Nixon off as a far cry from the “real Nixon” (I mean, of course Nixon portrays himself as a good guy!), I wonder what one should say about Nixon’s expression of his moral qualms to Roy Day. Was Roy Day making that story up to make Nixon look good? Did Day remember an event that did not happen? Or did Nixon express certain moral principles, only to fail to follow through on them consistently, out of a desire to win?
3. Morris makes the point that Nixon knew the minutiae of his campaign, in a number of areas. A question that comes up often in my reading of books about Nixon is this: How much did Nixon know about the shady activities of his underlings? This question is applicable to 1946, to his 1950 Senate race, and even to later races. For example, in 1968, was Nixon aware that someone claiming to speak on his behalf was promising General Thieu of South Vietnam that he could get a better deal under Nixon, and so Thieu had might as well postpone his participation in the Paris Peace Talks until Nixon got elected? Nixon said that he had nothing to do with that.
Nixon does strike me as one who was concerned about details of his campaign. In reading books by and about him, he strikes me as quite methodical in his discussion of issues. And yet, I do have to admit that there were times when he had a rather hands-off style of governing. He was surprised by the Watergate burglary, and he also tended to let his Cabinet do what it wanted in terms of domestic policy, since he wasn’t particularly interested in that. Consequently, I don’t know if Nixon was aware of every shady thing that went on in his campaigns. Maybe he was aware of some things, but not others.