In Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, Conrad Black narrates that William Knowland, a conservative Republican U.S. Senator from California, chose to run for Governor of California in 1958 rather than to pursue re-election to the U.S. Senate. According to this article, Knowland at the time was the Senate Minority Leader. Black says that Knowland was hoping to use the Governorship of California as “a stepping stone to the presidency” (page 366). Black calls this decision on Knowland’s part “the final attack of insanity of his public career”, for Knowland had “a reasonable chance of reelection” to the U.S. Senate (page 366). Knowland ended up taking the Republican nomination from Goodwin Knight, the Lieutenant Governor who replaced Earl Warren as Governor of California when Warren went on to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. But Knowland then lost badly to Democrat Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in the general election, and the wikipedia article attributes Knowland’s loss to his support for an unpopular right-to-work initiative. According to Black, “Knowland’s life and career trailed off, and he eventually took to drink and gambling, left his wife, lost his money, and committed suicide in 1974” (page 374).
The wikipedia article narrates that Knowland was doing things between his loss in the Governor’s race and his suicide. It states that “Knowland was the titular head of the California Republican Party from 1959 to 1967, when he passed the party leadership to the new governor, Ronald Reagan.” Knowland “became President, Editor, and Publisher of the Oakland Tribune in 1966…” But his first and second marriage would fail, and he accumulated a lot of debts. In 1974, he shot himself.
I found out about a biography of Knowland, which is entitled One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland. It is by Gayle Montgomery, James Johnson, and Paul Manolis. I find the summary on Amazon to be quite poignant:
“During the Cold War years of the 1950s, William F. Knowland was one of the most important figures in American politics. As the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, the wealthy California newspaper heir was recognized and respected by millions. His influence with President Eisenhower led to Earl Warren’s appointment as chief justice, and Knowland set in motion a U.S.-China policy that remains part of our international direction today. Yet he committed suicide in 1974, following a personal decline that included political humiliation, a ruined marriage, and the loss of his family fortune. This is the first full-scale biography of Bill Knowland, written by two journalists who came to know him after he left Washington in 1958. Gayle B. Montgomery was a political editor at the Oakland Tribune, the newspaper owned by Knowland’s father, the power-wielding Joseph R. Knowland. James W. Johnson was a Tribune editorial writer. Both men worked with Knowland when he returned to the newspaper after giving up his Senate seat in a failed bid to become governor of California. Knowland lost the governorship race to Edmund G. (Pat) Brown; had he won, many observers felt Knowland would have had a clear shot at the White House. This is a book not only about Mr. Republican, but also one that illuminates the strengths and deficiencies of Republican party politics during the years when the party was at its zenith. In portraying the life of Bill Knowland, the authors cast a glaring light both on the machinations of political power and on the Republican establishment’s aspirations in the Warren-Eisenhower era.”
One of the reviews is by someone who worked for Knowland at the Oakland Tribune, and this reviewer states: “I knew Senator Knowland well, having worked for twenty years for the Oakland Tribune, and having had the unenviable assignment of writing his obituary for the newspaper following his death. Gayle Montgomery and Jim Johnson have done a magnificent job of capturing the driving demons of a man whose brusque and hearty demeanor disguised a complex and, in the end, tortured personality. This is a compelling book for every reader, not just those interested in the social an[d] political history of the time.”
Why did I choose to write about this today? I try to write something each day about whatever Nixon book I am reading, and I chose this topic, for there was something about it that grabbed me. Not only is it tragic that someone who once had so much power, influence, and fame killed himself (though it would also be tragic if someone without those things committed suicide), but it also seems as if Knowland’s entire political career ended simply because he made one bad decision, an error in judgment: he could have arguably gone on being an influential Senator, but he left that to run for Governor, and he lost badly. But did things have to turn out as they did? Could Knowland have run again for office after losing the Governorship, as Richard Nixon did? I don’t know. Knowland’s father sold a radio station that he owned to help pay off Knowland’s campaign debts. I’m not sure how feasible a renaissance in Knowland’s political career would have been. Maybe Knowland was just burned out.