J. Bradford DeLong
August 26, 1999
A Review of Greg Mitchell (1998), Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas--Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950 (New York: Random House: 0679416218).
Two weeks before election day in 1950, the Republican Senatorial candidate in California--Richard M. Nixon--accused the Democratic Senatorial candidate in California--Helen Gahagan Douglas--of being the conduit through which the decisions made by Josef Stalin in the Kremlin flowed to the United States Congress:
"This action by Mrs. Douglas," Nixon explained, "... came just two weeks after [U.S. Communist Party leader] William Z. Foster transmitted his instructions from the Kremlin to the Communist national committee.... [Thus] this [Communist] demand found its way into the Congress" (Mitchell (1998), p. 209).
Later on Nixon campaign manager Murray Chotiner would try to erase--or perhaps forget his role in?--history, claiming that the Nixon campaign of 1950 "had never accused Douglas of 'sympathizing' or 'being in league with' the Communists." Nixon himself claimed that he "never questioned her patriotism" and that he had been smeared by her. Nixon biographers like Jonathan Aitken would refer to Nixon's relatively clean hands in the 1950 Senate campaign.
But the most important thing was that Nixon won the 1950 California Senate race. Because he won the 1950 California Senate race he went on to become Vice President in 1953, and President in 1969. But perhaps more important, the way he won the 1950 Senate race--the fact that his tactics then worked--warped American politics for nearly half a century.
How was it warped? Into a pattern of "lie whenever you can" and "demonize your political opponents." Thus later on Nixon speechwriter William Safire would paint a picture of a President Nixon threatened by:
...a lynch mob, no cause or ideology involved, only an orgy of generalized hate.... The hall [where Nixon was speaking] was actually, not figuratively, besieged.... The Secret Servicemen, who always had seemed too numerous and too officious before, now seemed to us like a too-small band of too-mortal men... (William Safire, Before the Fall).
But Nixon's chief of staff would have a different view of the same situation. As H.R. Haldeman expressed it in his diary:
...we wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the hall, so we stalled departure a little so they could zero in.... Before getting in car, P[resident Nixon] stood up and gave the V signs, which made them mad. They threw rocks, flags, candles, etc. as we drove out.... Bus windows smashed, etc. Made a huge incident and we worked hard to crank it up, should make really major story and might be effective. (H.R. Haldeman)
And Nixon would demand that his top aides--H.R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger--"use any means" to defeat the "enemy... conspiracy" of his domestic political adversaries. What did Nixon think of as "any means"? We know from his immediate subsequent demand:
Was the Brookings Institute raided last night? No? Get it done. I want the Brookings Institute's safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that makes somebody else responsible... (Stanley Kutler)
that in 1971 the "any means" included burglary, theft, the planting of false evidence, conspiracy to frame innocent parties. We don't know how much further "any means" went, or would have gone.
Thus there is a sense in which the Nixon-Douglas campaign of 1950 was key to shaping America not just because of the character of the politician (Nixon) whom it elevated to prominence, but because, as Greg Mitchell writes in his preface:
[The race] set a divisive and rigid agenda for forty years of election campaigns. Until 1950, candidates [who]... campaigned primarily on an anti-Communist platform... usually lost.... [Republican presidential candidate] in 1948 Thomas E. Dewey... criticized fellow Republicans who called for repressive new measures to control subversives.... Republican and Democratic leaders alike interpreted the outcome [of the 1950 election] as a victory for McCarthyisam and a call for a dramatic surge in military spending.... Red-baiting would haunt America for years, the so-called national security state would evolve and endure, and candidates would run and win on anti-Sovietism for decades..." (p. xix).
Now Greg Mitchell has done an excellent job of taking us back to the campaign of 1950--legitimate fears, the backdrop of American apparent defeat in the Korean War, blacklists, loyalty oaths, and the general belief that a woman's place was in the kitchen, not in the Senate. It is a very, very readable book, and very much worth reading--for what happened in the 1950 Senate race played a remarkably large part in determining what America was to be in the second half of the twentieth century.
More on Nixon
Richard Nixon Segues from Thinking About the Hiss Case to Using "Any Means" in Political Warfare
H.R. Haldeman on Antiwar Protestors
Could It Happen Here?: The Fragility of the American Political System
Review of Greg Mitchell, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady
William Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency
William Safire on Antiwar Protestors
Nixon on Tape--Welfare, etc.
Unpublished Book Reviews