I’m almost done with watching the American Experience biography of Richard Nixon (I’ll post a review here when I’m done) and one thing that is clear is that Nixon was a very tough campaigner and definitely not above doing anything to win (as evidenced by Watergate as I’m sure you all remember).One election that really stuck out to me was Nixon’s 1950 Senate race (this is an anti-Nixon slant) against Helen Gahagan Douglas. Frank Gannon over at the “The New Nixon,” wrote that he asked Henry Fonda why he disliked Nixon and Fonda told him it was for this election (this is a pro-Nixon slant). I’ve tried in this post to give both sides of the story of this election.
In 1950, Nixon was in the House and well known for his anti-communism work like the Alger Hiss case. Helen Gahagan Douglas was also a member of Congress:
Helen Gahagan Douglas was a quintessential unreconstructed left-liberal New Dealer who was instinctively anti-communist but who felt equally strongly that communism represented no meaningful threat to American security or interests. Her votes (for the Marshall Plan but against Truman Plan aid to Greece or Turkey) reflected this kind of dichotomy. Within the context of the times it made her vulnerable to criticism and attack from the center and right of her own party as well as from the Republicans. It also placed her clearly outside the mainstream of public opinion in California and the nation.
Douglas was from Hollywood and the wife of an actor (Melvyn Douglas). Although she was not a Communist, she had ties to many “Hollywood types” that were linked to Communist activities and in 1950, at the height of the Red Scare, Nixon used this without mercy. Nixon’s campaign developed a “Pink Sheet” to send a message that she had Communist sympathies:
After Mrs. Douglas won the primary, the Nixon campaign adopted the Boddy campaign’s Marcantonio ad in toto and reprinted it on pink stock. It became known as “the pink sheet” and was widely seen (and, in liberal quarters, disparaged) as an example of a Nixon smear.
Douglas was given the nickname, “The Pink Lady,” by the Republican Los Angeles Times, who were staunchly pro-Nixon. Nixon’s campaign hired companies to make anonymous calls to voters asking if they know that Mrs. Douglas is a Communist. Douglas also faced problems from her own party. Nixon recorded this meeting with John F. Kennedy (then a Democratic Congressman) in his memoirs:
One afternoon in 1950, I was working in my office when Dorothy Cox, my personal secretary, came in and said, “Congressman Kennedy is here and would like to talk to you.”
Jack Kennedy was ushered in and I motioned him into a chair. He took an envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to me. “Dick, I know you’re in for a pretty rough campaign,” he said, “and my father wanted to help out.”
We talked for a while about the campaign. As he rose to leave, he said, “I obviously can’t endorse you, but it isn’t going to break my heart if you can turn the Senate’s loss into Hollywood’s gain.”
After he left I opened the envelope and found it contained a $1,000 contribution. Three days after I won in November, Kennedy told an informal gathering of professors and students at Harvard that he was personally very happy that I had defeated Mrs. Douglas.
Now while Nixon certainly did not hold back in this campaign, neither did Mrs. Douglas. Nixon is tarred for dirty tactics in this campaign, but Frank Gannon tells us the other side – that Mrs. Douglas was not much better:
It has also conveniently been forgotten that Mrs. Douglas, presumably intending to frame the issue in her favor with a preemptive strike, fired the first mud salvo. Before the Nixon campaign had even powered up, she called him a “demagogue” who was selling “fear and…..nice, unadulterated fascism.” Her literature denigrated him as a “Peewee trying to frighten people so that they are too afraid to turn out the lights.” She referred to “the backwash of Republican young men in dark shirts” at a time when such words were still recent and potent references to Hitler’s brown and Mussolini’s black shirted thugs. Her campaign put out rumors that Pat Nixon was a lapsed Catholic.
And Mrs. Douglas even had her own rather bizarre version of the “pink sheet”. The “yellow sheet” was a handbill printed on yellow stock in which she claimed that it was Nixon whose record actually matched the controversial Marcantonio’s. There were some instances in which this was literally true; but, as a campaign ploy, this was, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain weird.
The decision to attack —and to attack first— turned out to be a major miscalculation. It seemed to prevent her own campaign from defining itself, and it undoubtedly shaped the Nixon camp’s response. Whatever excesses RN may (or may not) have committed, it should at least be remembered who first crossed that muddy Rubicon.
Most of these have been largely forgotten. But there is one still-lingering legacy of the 1950 Senate campaign: Mrs. Douglas’s memorable labeling of RN as “Tricky Dick”.
There is no doubt that the campaign included heated, intense, and, occasionally, distasteful levels of excess on both sides. Even the judicious Herbert Parmet concludes that Mrs. Douglas’ “campaign operators operated with the élan of apprentice butchers and the tactics of desperation.” But because (a) RN won and (b) RN was RN, the parity of blame has been all but universally overlooked.
I hope this has given you some insight into this campaign and into both Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas.