In my latest reading of Jonathan Aitken’s Nixon: A Life, Aitken’s narration of Richard Nixon’s controversial 1950 Senate campaign was, well, interesting. I have read things that try to defend Nixon’s activity during that time, or at least to portray Nixon as not-so-horrible. Irwin Gellman’s The Contender is one example. So is Richard Nixon’s narration of the event in his memoirs. And Julie Nixon Eisenhower states that both Nixon and his Democratic opponent, Helen Douglas, were harsh to one another, probably against the narrative that focuses largely on her father’s attacks on Douglas.
But Aitken took this sort of pro-Nixon or Nixon sympathizing narrative to a whole new level. He says that Douglas was worse than Nixon in terms of attacks. Aitken also seems to imply that the infamous Pink Sheet—-in which Nixon compared Douglas’ voting record with that of far left Congressman Vito Marcantonio—-came after Douglas’ Yellow Sheet attacking Nixon and comparing his voting record with that of Marcantonio. Aitken also departs from the typical narrative that Nixon’s controversial take-no-prisoners campaign aide, Murray Chotiner, was encouraging Nixon to run a brutal Red-baiting campaign against Douglas. According to Aitken, Chotiner was encouraging Nixon to focus on domestic issues, rather than his role in the Alger Hiss case. But Nixon did not take Chotiner’s advice, Aitken narrates. And, against the charge that Nixon exploited anti-Semitism in his campaign (since Douglas’ husband was Jewish), Aitken points out that Nixon repudiated anti-Semitism in a manner that drew praise from the Anti-Defamation League, and also that Murray Chotiner himself was Jewish. Aitken is not completely defensive of Nixon, however, for he argues (like many biographers) that the Pink Sheet was rather misleading.
I think that Aitken raised some valid points in his discussion of the 1950 campaign, or at least points worthy of discussion. Most narrations that I have read about the event appear to presume that Nixon brought up Marcantonio first, and that Douglas only compared Nixon with Marcantonio after Nixon’s Pink Sheet. But many of the narrations that I have read—-even those that depict Nixon as the bad guy and Douglas as a victim—-point out examples of Douglas’ name-calling and attacks on her political opponents. I doubt that she was above reproach. Aitken does well to highlight that, and he does so in more detail than anything else I have read up to this point. I do believe that Aitken’s narrative was incomplete, however, or failed to take into account certain considerations. Aitken, for example, notes examples of Nixon criticizing and repudiating Joseph McCarthy, but some of the other books I have read suggest that Nixon praised McCarthy in pro-McCarthy areas of California, while criticizing him in the more moderate areas of the state.
Other interesting items in my latest reading include stories about Nixon’s kindnesses to others (such as his secretaries and constituents who visited him in Washington, D.C.); the account of Nixon’s long-time secretary, Rose Mary Woods, that Nixon in interviewing her did not probe into her religious or political affiliations, and Woods’ narration of her Catholic family’s victimization at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan when she was growing up (the Klan burned crosses on her lawn); and Nixon’s reliance on his religious faith in getting through the 1952 Fund controversy. These are things that I have not found in other books by and about Nixon. Nixon himself probably recognized the need to appear modest, so he does not harp on his kind deeds in his writings. Nixon also expressed aversion towards wearing religion on one’s sleeve, and that may explain why he does not talk much about his faith in Six Crises and his memoirs. Regarding Rose Mary Woods’ accounts, Aitken’s discussion of that shows how his book is a reservoir of interviews with key people whom many did not get to interview.
Also noteworthy is Aitken’s narration of Nixon’s work for Dwight Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican Convention. Like many biographers, except for Gellman, Aitken depicts Nixon as supporting Eisenhower at the convention and seeking to undermine Earl Warren’s hold on the California delegates, and Aitken does so with more clarity than other narrations I have read. In his clarity, however, Aitken does leave some things out, such as Roger Morris’ claim that Nixon at the convention was pretending to support arch-conservative candidate Robert Taft to the Taftites.