For my blog post today about Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, I will use as my starting-point something that Black says on page 126. The subject is President Harry Truman’s run for re-election in 1948.
“Truman was ‘giving ’em hell’ and making tremendous inroads, warning that the Republicans were reactionary enemies of the working families of America.”
The reason that this passage stood out to me was that I had recently listened to a speech by Pat Buchanan, which was delivered in 2013 for the centennial of Richard Nixon’s birth. (To watch the speech, see here.) Buchanan was saying that the same people who praised Harry Truman’s “give ’em hell” campaign in 1948 were quite critical of Richard Nixon’s hard-hitting campaign against liberal Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1950.
I was not sure how to react to that. I had read Greg Mitchell’s book about Nixon’s 1950 Senate race, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, and what Mitchell said that Nixon and Nixon’s supporters did in that campaign disturbed me. And yet, I’m not always disturbed when one candidate attacks another candidate. I actually enjoyed watching Barack Obama’s attacks on his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in 2012. And, although I don’t know a great deal about Harry Truman’s “give ’em hell” campaign for re-election in 1948, I don’t exactly flinch when I read that Truman warned that the Republicans were “reactionary enemies of the working families of America” (Black’s summary).
So why do I like it when Obama and Truman attack their opponents, while I am disturbed when I read about Richard Nixon’s hard-hitting campaign against Douglas? Is it because Obama and Truman were Democrats, whereas Nixon was a Republican, and I tend to agree with Democrats more than Republicans? I hope that it’s not just that.
There are a variety of things that disturbed me when I was reading Mitchell’s book. Probably what disturbed me most was that the 1950 race destroyed Douglas politically. Douglas made political blunders in her campaign, but Nixon’s campaign was calling her pink, in a time when there was widespread fear of Communism. Moreover, the way that much of the press sided with Nixon and did not allow Douglas to adequately get her message out struck me as unfair, and the mob-like, disruptive approach of some of Nixon’s supporters also bothered me. On these sorts of issues, I try to be fair and to apply the same standard to both sides. Granted, I enjoyed watching the news media point out Romney’s mishaps on a daily basis, because I thought that would lead to Romney losing the election, but I believe that Romney should have been able to get his message out. And I’m not overly keen on supporters of one candidate bullying supporters of the other candidate, or going to the other candidate’s events and being disruptive. I want for people to be able to say what they want to say, without having to put up with a mob, or with disruptive people. I’d say this also about the liberals who disrupted the 2004 Republican National Convention when George W. Bush was giving his speech: they should have allowed Bush to give his speech, without disruption.
On the 1950 race, to tell you the truth, I don’t think that everything that Nixon said about Douglas was unfair. Nixon was saying that Douglas’ ideas would hinder the United States’ attempts to protect itself from Communism, and I believe that he was entitled to that opinion, and that he was right to make that an issue in 1950 (though he was not the first to make it an issue, for some of Douglas’ opponents in the Democratic primary harped on it, as well). Douglas was to the left of even a number of Democrats, and I can understand why many would believe that her ideas would not be useful in the face of the Communist threat. Had Nixon simply said that he questioned her judgment, not her patriotism, I wouldn’t have had a problem with his campaign. But, while that was his message (on some level), he and his campaign went beyond that. They called Douglas pink. And there were Nixon supporters who went so far as to call her red. That damaged her significantly, considering the fear of Communism at the time, whereas I doubt that Truman’s attacks on the Republicans or Obama’s attacks on Romney did as much damage.