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Sunday, February 8, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How Nixon Beat `Pink' In '50 Race

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------------------- "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas - Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950" by Greg Mitchell Random House, $25 -------------------------------------------

Richard Nixon spent the 20 years after Watergate nursing his moribund reputation back to such good health that when he died in 1994, politicians from both sides of the aisle stepped over themselves to praise him: A towering figure of the 20th century. A great elder statesman. Watergate? A minor slip-up.

Those who agree should read "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady," Greg Mitchell's eminently readable account of the 1950 California race for the U.S. Senate.

Congressman Nixon's opponent in his attempt to move up to the Senate was Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former actress and a congresswoman from another district in Southern California. She won the seat in 1944 and quickly established a reputation as an independent thinking liberal who, for example, "loudly hissed a colleague on the floor of the House . . . when he blamed many U.S. casualties in World War II on the ineptitude of Negro soldiers."

Nixon won his House seat in 1946 by accusing his opponent of being soft on communism, a strategy he would return to with a vengeance in 1950. It was Nixon who dubbed Douglas "the Pink Lady" - she voted for welfare programs, after all, and against HUAC (the House Unamerican Activities Committee) - and privately, among men, he accused her of being "pink right down to her underwear."

Smear campaign

An infamous "pink sheet" was distributed during the campaign, comparing Douglas' voting record with that of Rep. Vito Marcantonio of New York, a known communist. Yet it was more than half-truths and innuendo that cost Douglas the election. Nixon had so much money from big oil and big business that he could even lend to other Republicans' campaigns, earning their gratitude.

Yet Douglas' financial backers, liberal Hollywood, were in headlong flight that year. Fearful of HUAC and blacklists, they rarely surfaced.

The press was astonishingly, almost unconstitutionally collusive with Nixon. He was also better organized and knew how to draw blood. Young Republicans shadowed Douglas, heckling and asking provocative questions, smearing her as "pink" and a "red-hot."

Before election day, thousands of Californians received phone calls accusing Douglas of being communist, or, worse, Jewish (the real name of her husband, the actor Melvyn Douglas, was Hesselberg). The dirty tricks, in a way, say more about American society than anything even the most imaginative novelist could dream up.

"Some voters in all-white Republican strongholds," writes Mitchell, "received postcards from a mythical Communist League of Negro Women urging them to `Vote for Helen for Senator - We Are with Her 100%.' "

Setting an agenda

Mitchell, whose previous books include "The Birth of Media Politics," is interested in the 1950 campaign, he says, because it helped "set a divisive and rigid agenda for forty years of election campaigns . . ." He is the first to make use of four boxes of Nixon campaign documents that recently surfaced at the National Archives in Laguna Niguel, Calif., and his careful, step-by-step approach suggests the documentarian rather than the sensationalist. Rarely does he draw conclusions.

Reading an inside account of how Nixon persuaded a majority of Californians to vote against their interests by appealing to their fears and prejudices is almost to lose faith in electoral politics. We got Nixon, in the end, because we deserved him. Or, as Gore Vidal famously put it, "We are Nixon; he is us."

Seattle writer Erik Lundegaard is a regular contributor to The Grand Salami, a Seattle Mariners fan magazine.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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