For my blog post today about Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, I’d like to highlight something that Morris says on page 335. The topic is Richard Nixon’s defeat of Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis in his 1946 race for Congress, and how narratives would come to portray that race.
“‘Nixon ‘turned a California grass-roots campaign (dubbed ‘hopeless’ by wheelhorse Republicans) into a triumph over high-powered, high-minded Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis,’ reported Time magazine after the election, adding in utter seriousness that the young winner had ‘politely avoided personal attacks.’ The legends multiplied, source fed on source. In myriad newspapers, magazines, and books the Committee of 100 became typical small businessmen and civic leaders chafing at the New Deal, even in some accounts Independents and Democrats, rather than the people, and interests, they were. The Nixon campaign came down in those postwar months in the soft tint of a citizen crusade, a candidacy from the ‘grass-roots’ as Time put the half-truth, evoking images of the small contributions and volunteers, which were there, but missing altogether the other reality—-the University Club, Elk Hills, the corporate levies, the vastly larger forces arrayed against Voorhis. So, too, the controversial Murray Chotiner was now in, now out of the picture, his genuine and decisive role obscured along with the events and trends he determined, reinforcing the fiction that it had been indeed a campaign of gifted amateurs.”
The reason that this passage stood out to me is that the narrative that Morris is criticizing reminded me so much of what Irwin Gellman would later argue in his book, The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946-1952. Morris’ narrative is that Nixon’s campaign in 1946 received lots of money from wealthy special interests, that the newspapers were largely on Nixon’s side, and that Murray Chotiner, even though he was primarily working on Bill Knowland’s Senate campaign in 1946, still played a significant role within Nixon’s campaign, influencing Nixon to use a Red-baiting strategy against Voorhis. Gellman disputes salient elements of Morris’ narrative, arguing that there is no evidence that Nixon’s campaign had tons of money from wealthy special interests, and also contending that Murray Chotiner played a marginal role in Nixon’s 1946 campaign.
What’s interesting is that both sides believe that they are challenging prominent narratives about the 1946 race. Morris believes that many narrators of those events downplayed the wealth and influence of Nixon’s powerful backers, as well as the role of Murray Chotiner in Nixon’s campaign. Gellman, by contrast, argues that many narrators exaggerated the wealth and influence of Nixon’s backers (Gellman says that a local bank branch manager was made out to be a financier), along with Chotiner’s role in Nixon’s campaign. I get the sense from Morris and Gellman that both believe that they are underdogs, challenging popular myths about Nixon. What is probably going on is that each is responding to popular narratives about Nixon that were out there: Morris was responding to the storytelling of people who were sympathetic to Nixon, whereas Gellman was addressing the narratives told by anti-Nixon people.
Both Gellman and Morris appeal to the testimonies of eyewitnesses, newspapers, and documents from the time in question. In terms of which narrative I accept about the 1946 race, I tend to side with Morris. Even if Gellman is right that the wealth and prominence of certain Nixon supporters got exaggerated, I think that Morris did well to talk about the well-off special interests in California, and why they would prefer Nixon to Voorhis. Moreover, while Gellman argued that Nixon’s campaign did not have as much money as critics allege, Morris on page 337 states:
“Official reports filed at the time with Congress recorded only $370 in contributions to Nixon. In the more detailed affidavits and statements filed in Sacramento, the Nixon campaign listed $17,774 for both the primary and general elections, against $1,928 for Voorhis. Three decades later, Nixon backers would finally admit that the actual tallied contributions had been between $24,000 and $32,000. But the records were long ago burned, they confessed, and even the listed money was only a small fraction of what actually went into the campaign.”
Morris has his exact references in the notes section. Overall, I think that this paragraph is a far cry from an unsubstantiated rumor about the Nixon campaign, for it gets into documentation and eyewitness testimony.
I should note, however, that Morris’ narration of the 1946 campaign was not entirely what I suspected. First, a charge that Gellman and even Nixon sought to refute was that Nixon responded to an ad in the paper to run for Congress. As far as I can remember, Morris did not make that claim. Rather, the way Morris tells the story, a Republican was looking for someone who could run against Voorhis, and he thought that Nixon would make a good candidate, so he sent Nixon a letter when Nixon was in Maryland. That, as far as I can recall, is essentially the story that Gellman tells. Second, Gellman is rather skeptical about how Voorhis would remember the 1946 race. The thing is, Morris too expresses skepticism, in some areas. For example, Voorhis would later say that he was not endorsed by NC-PAC, even though he was, according to Morris, since Chotiner knew of the endorsement before Voorhis even received “the fateful letter from the National Citizens group in May 1946” (page 336). Voorhis also recollected that Nixon was the one who proposed having the debates, when it was actually Voorhis’ idea. That makes me wonder how much we should trust eyewitness testimony from years after the event. I think that it should be consulted, yet one should remember that it’s not fool-proof, for it is filtered through the biases and limitations of memory of those who are “remembering” the events. Perhaps a proper course is to compare and contrast what the different eyewitnesses are saying, to compare their statements with what newspapers at the time were presenting (although they, too, were probably biased), to try to identify the bias or agenda that would lead an eyewitness to tell a story in a particular manner, etc.