I have two items for my blog post today on Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of the American Politician. The context is Richard Nixon’s acrimonious campaign for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas.
1. On page 603, we read the following:
“In late October, along with the ads and circulars, came a stream of letters to the editor in various regions of the state, often so thoroughly prearranged that the text was accompanied by photos and capsule biographies of the writers. Thus Mrs. Ruth Peters, secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce, typically wrote The Hemet News: ‘As for Helen Douglas I consider her a traitor for defending communists in the government, communists who have been ruthlessly murdering our helpless boys…[and] her campaign for the U.S. Senate [is] a personal threat to my security.’ Hearing a similar commentary on a Los Angeles radio station, the Douglases’ twelve-year-old daughter was in near hysteria as she greeted her mother one night: ‘Mummy, Mummy…they are saying terrible things about you!’ Soon after the letters began to appear, Douglas’s car was pelted with stones and her dress splattered with red ink at one appearance. Now frightened, her aides insisted she travel with bodyguards through the closing days of the race. In Visalia, in the heart of the Central Valley, she gave an impassioned speech, and a migrant worker came up to her afterward with tears in his eyes. ‘They haven’t made you afraid, they haven’t made you afraid,’ he repeated, and she was mute with emotion. Elsewhere in the Valley, vigilantes coerced farmers known to be Democratic supporters. And, as in the small towns of the twelfth district for years earlier, local businessmen—-including one prominent vintner—-were threatened by the loss of vital bank loans if they backed Douglas. ‘You wondered, is this a democratic election,’ Helen Douglas said to an interviewer years afterward, ‘or are we in a war, an undeclared war?’”
Morris presents the 1950 race as one between a progressive, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and a Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, who was receiving substantial support from wealthy special interests, and thus had more means and opportunities to get out his message. Nixon, however, presented himself as the underdog who was standing up to certain special interests. He liked to refer to the union support that Douglas received and the hecklers at his campaign rallies. While many would portray Douglas as a victim of a whispering campaign that was saying that she was either a Communist or was soft on Communism, Nixon would claim that he himself was a victim of a whispering campaign, which was calling him a racist and an anti-Semite. And Morris refers to Douglas campaign people turning over a Republican campaign car.
What I thought about as I read page 603 of Morris’ book was how much courage it would take to challenge the powers that be. There are people who have thought that I had that sort of courage, but, believe me, I don’t. When I spoke up, there were often people around me who would back me up. And, even when there weren’t, I wasn’t in any danger for speaking my mind. It would be so easy to go with the flow, to appease the powers that be and to advance their interests. I scratch your back, you scratch mine! But there are politicians who courageously stood up for what they believed was the good of the people, against those who could hurt them.
Nixon himself probably believed that he was this sort of politician, one who courageously stood up for what he believed was right, at risk to himself. I doubt that he saw himself as one who was pandering to the highest bidder. In his eyes (or so he tells us), he laid his career on the line on the notion that Alger Hiss was a Communist spy and needed to be exposed. Irwin Gellman in The Contender talks about how Nixon as Congressman surprised people by opposing a dam that he thought would waste money, even though there were prominent interests that wanted that dam. (Morris narrates that Nixon in his 1946 campaign talked out of both sides of his mouth when it came to the dam, basing his stance on his audience at the moment.) Nixon himself says that a leader should not simply follow public opinion but should seek to shape public opinion. Nixon may have had his share of courage, but my impression is that Douglas was swimming upstream a lot more than he was, since he had wealthy special interests in his corner.
I’ve been reading I Chronicles lately. In I Chronicles 11, we read of David’s mighty men. These were brave men, some of whom single-handedly killed vast numbers of Israel’s enemies. I Chronicles 11 can easily encourage some of us to be courageous because the courage of these mighty men worked out well for them: they courageously stepped forward, they fought, and they won. But that’s not a guarantee in life. What if you courageously step forward, and you lose? I think of Helen Douglas, or that lady who saved children during the Holocaust, and she would be in a wheelchair because of what Nazis did to her. This lady probably still thought that her act of courage was worth it, whatever the cost to herself, for she did good. But, unfortunately and yet understandably, many choose to go with the flow, to travel the path of least resistance.
2. On page 620, we read the following:
“Beyond the candidates and their fate, history in a larger sense would mock the great causes of 1950. It was not the greedy Republican landowners who undid Helen Douglas’s cherished 160-acre limitation in the Central Valley but rather a Democratic Bureau of Reclamation that soon found a way around the controversy to protect and preserve its own bureaucratic position. If a corporation had ten or even a hundred shareholders, it would be entitled to federal irrigation for 160 acres per shareholder, the bureau soon ruled. And an owner could legally deed out 320-acre parcels to various married relatives and children. It might not be ‘spiritual compliance,’ the bureau chief would tell Congress, ‘but technical compliance was good enough.’ Neither Sheridan Downey not Helen Douglas, it turned out, had quite understood what or who really ruled the Valley.”
I can’t say that I understand everything that this paragraph is saying, but let me say what I do understand. The issue with the 160-acre limitation was that Douglas supported a law limiting state-funded irrigation to farms that only had 160 acres or less, and the rationale for her position was that she wanted the small farmers to have a shot in a state where big agribusiness dominated. Sheridan Downey was the Democratic Senator of California prior to Richard Nixon, and Douglas did not care for him because she thought that he was entrenched with wealthy special interests. Downey opposed the 160-acre limitation, and he wrote a book (or actually it was ghostwritten for him, according to Morris), They Would Rule the Valley, which said that the Bureau of Reclamation was trying to institute totalitarian rule over the Valley, thereby destroying the free economy. Nixon would commend Downey on account of this book.
It is hard to tell from the paragraph who exactly won in this dispute. It looks like neither did. But the dispute was resolved, Morris appears to narrate, not through some grand appeal to reform, nor through opposition to federal intervention, but rather through some bureaucrats stepping in and devising a technical solution. That’s actually pretty profound, in my opinion. I can admire those who courageously step forward and make waves, challenging the special interests, knowing that they may face peril on account of this. It’s good to have idealists because, otherwise, we have business as usual, which tends to privilege those with power, to the disadvantage of those whose wealth, power, and influence are not as large. But, sometimes, it’s not the grand idealist who solves the problems, but someone operating behind the scenes in a low-key manner. There are people who are reformers, but they’re not out there on the street-corners, offending the rich and powerful.