For my blog post today about Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, I’d like to highlight a passage on pages 340-341. The context is the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s 1946 run for Congress against Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis.
“There was that winter one last, less-graceful sequel to the contest between these extraordinary men. Not long after the meeting in Voorhis’s office, a mutual California acquaintance introduced Nixon to Stanley Long, a former Voorhis aide, who proceeded unabashedly to take the new congressman to task for the Red smears and the devastating ‘rabbit’ attack on the Voorhis legislative record. That night Nixon would reply much as he responded to Osmyn Stout chiding him for his sophistry in the campaign debates. ‘Of course, I knew Jerry Voorhis wasn’t a communist,’ he said. ‘You know I knew better than that; I know the processes of the legislature and the Congress better than that,’ he added about the famous ‘rabbits.’ But it’s a good political campaign fire to use.’ Long was simply na[i]ve to dwell on these political means. ‘I had to win,’ he told the aide. ‘That’s the thing you don’t understand. The important thing is to win.'”
The part about the rabbits refers to a point that Nixon made in his 1946 race against Voorhis. Nixon was arguing that Voorhis was an ineffective legislator. “Out of a mass of 132 bills introduced by my opponent in the last four years, only one has become law,” Nixon said, “and that one was one that transferred the activities affecting domestic rabbits from one federal department to another.” According to Morris, Nixon took care to say this away from the rabbit breeders of California’s twelfth district, the ones who actually supported Voorhis’ bill. But Nixon would eventually bring down the house on a regular basis by saying, “One had to be a rabbit to get effective representation in this congressional district.”
When Voorhis stayed up one night to try to understand on what basis Nixon was calling him ineffectual, and also the basis for the charge that Voorhis was voting in the interests of the Soviets and the CIO, here is what Voorhis and his staff found, according to Morris on page 328: “He and his staff would discover not 132 or forty or forty-six votes, as Nixon variously claimed, but because of duplications only twenty-seven separate roll calls. The ‘subversive’ ‘pro-Russian’ issues were the school lunch program, soil conservation, foreign relief, opposition to higher oil prices, abolition of the poll tax, a loan to Britain, two veterans’ housing bills, and a vote against exempting insurance companies from antitrust legislation.”
Earlier in the book, on page 302, Morris basically implies that Nixon was distorting his own record, making himself out to be better than he was. The little bio about Nixon said: “Born and raised on a southern California ranch…has a working knowledge of farm problems…a service station operator…a fruit grader in a packing house…[who] knows…the problems of the working man….As a lawyer he advised business firms on problems of finance and management….He knows what it means to sleep in a foxhole—-exist on K rations—-‘sweat out’ an air raid…attorney for the government…displayed extraordinary talent in simplifying complicated war regulations.” Morris goes on to mock this little bio: “It was a subtle, ethically ominous sequence of distortions and omissions: the ‘farmer’ and ‘fruit grader’ at age eight or nine, the ‘finance and management’ of the bankrupt Citra-Frost, the exaggeration of his war service, the small half-truth that the talented government attorney worked so zealously on mail for the hated OPA.”
What Nixon did in 1946 is not particularly unusual in the world of politics. Candidates and spokesmen on both sides often toss accusations at each other without any regard for nuance, while puffing themselves up before the public with half-truths, or even lies. It’s something that we’ve come to expect. Nuance does not exactly sell, and the truth is not always as glamorous or as inspiring as fiction.
I do believe, though, that there are politicians who may resort to these tricks, and yet still have some measure of sincerity. Richard Nixon may have known that he was simplifying Jerry Voorhis’ record, but my hunch is that Nixon still thought that the substance of his characterization was correct, even if he was wrong on certain details. Nixon may have believed that Voorhis’ commitment to the New Deal was disastrous for the country and the state, both economically-speaking, and also because it put the country on the path to government authoritarianism. When George W. Bush harped on John Kerry for voting for war appropriations before voting against them, maybe Bush knew that Kerry voted against them because of the things that were added to the bill, things that Kerry did not like. But Bush probably still believed that Kerry did not have the substance or the commitment to be an effective leader in the War on Terror. Barack Obama may have known that not everything that his campaign or that Democrats were saying about Bain Capital was true: that Mitt Romney wasn’t making the decisions that led to certain layoffs, or that Bain had actually created jobs, not just destroyed them. But Obama most likely still felt that Romney was a cold capitalist who didn’t care when capitalism resulted in people losing their jobs. (I should note here that I am only speculating about what Bush and Obama knew and did not know.)
Nixon may have also agreed with the substance of his own bio, even if his campaign managed to leave things out. Why shouldn’t his experiences at age eight or nine be relevant to what he would bring to the table as a legislator? Nixon did have some experience in agriculture. He probably felt that he couldn’t tell his audiences that he was a farmer at age eight, since they would most likely mock him for that. But he may have still believed that those experiences gave him insight into the lives of everyday, hardworking Californians, the common man, if you will.
I’d like to close this post with a story. I was one time watching a debate between congressional candidates. The incumbent was a conservative Republican, a woman. The challenger was a young businessman. The young businessman was challenging a vote that the incumbent made against a bill, which related to China. The incumbent then went on to explain why she believed that the bill was bad and voted against it. The challenger meekly responded that maybe the bill was bad. The incumbent ended up looking knowledgeable and in command, whereas the challenger appeared rather foolish. I wish that I could remember what the bill was, but what that incident taught me was that it’s not always prudent for an unseasoned politician to go poking through the newspapers, superficially looking for things he can use against his opponent. If he’s going to do research on his opponent and use that research for attack, he should do it well: he should have a solid command of the facts and some of the nuances, and he should be able to communicate effectively. Nixon was able to do that in his race against Voorhis, such that Voorhis’ appeals to nuance most likely appeared rather inept, or as Voorhis trying to explain away the unattractive parts of his record. The young man who challenged that congresswoman, by contrast, got smacked down by someone who could came across as one who knew what she was talking about.