Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years 16

I finished Irwin Gellman's The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946-1952.  I have a couple of items to discuss, then I'll give my overall impression of the book.

1.  In my write-ups on Gellman's book, I haven't gone into much detail regarding the charge that Richard Nixon was bankrolled by wealthy big business interests when he ran for the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, a narrative that Gellman seeks to put to rest.  In my latest reading, Gellman makes at least three arguments against that claim.

First, on page 456, Gellman essentially argues that the narrative is based on exaggeration.  Ernest Brashear, for example, who wrote a critical piece about Richard Nixon for the September 1, 1952 edition of the New Republic, noted that Herman Perry recruited Nixon to run for the U.S. House in 1946, but Brashear "promoted Perry from a local bank branch manager to a wealthy Bank of America 'financier'" (Gellman's words on page 456). 

Second, in taking on the charge that wealthy interests spent vast sums of money on pro-Nixon billboards, Gellman argues that Nixon's campaign budgets were "miniscule", and Gellman appeals to Nixon archives, which "demonstrate that almost all major expenditures were done by the campaign and accounted for" (page 458).  And, third, Gellman states that, if the numbers that certain Nixon detractors have posited concerning spending by wealthy interests on pro-Nixon billboards were indeed true, that would have to entail a huge pro-Nixon blitz that blanketed the state, but "Media reports from the time mention no such blitz" (page 458).  In short, people weren't asking during this campaign where Nixon got the money for all of the billboards blanketing the state, so the likelihood is that pro-Nixon billboards were not blanketing the state!

2.  I'd like to go back a couple of readings ago.  On pages 338-340, Gellman talks about Helen Gahagan Douglas' narrative about her loss to Richard Nixon in the 1950 U.S. Senate race.  In October 1952, Douglas said: "The whispering campaign is what was so vicious.  People were paid to deliberately spread lies----and, of course, the biggest one was that my husband and I were Communists.  [Nixon was] much too wise to have called me a communist in so many words[, but the] pink sheet gave the impression to the reader who was not too well acquainted with the workings of Congress that there was a Marcantonio program presented in the House of Representatives which I supported 354 times."  In her memoir, Douglas discusses Nixon's campaign against Jerry Voorhis for U.S. House, and Gellman states on page 339 that "One of Douglas's campaign workers' daughters, [Douglas'] bizarre tale continued, had spent a day at Nixon headquarters, assigned to a room filled with people using telephones, saying, 'Good morning.  Do you know that Jerry Voorhis is a Communist?'"

I found this to be interesting, for it raised questions in my mind.  First, while Gellman focuses a lot on what Nixon said and did on the surface during his House and Senate campaigns and concludes that a number of accusations against Nixon about his campaign strategy during those times are unfair, could Nixon have supported a smear campaign (or, in Douglas' words, a "whispering campaign") in secret, behind the scenes?  Second, should we be so quick to dismiss Douglas' appeal to the recollection of her campaign worker's daughter about what went on at Nixon headquarters----that people there were calling voters and telling them that Voorhis was a Communist?  These are just questions that I have.  Gellman would probably come back and say that there's no evidence that Nixon conducted an underground smear campaign, and that we can't exactly trust an appeal to the testimony of someone who knew someone who saw something, and Gellman would be well within his rights to make those points.  

3.  Overall, I enjoyed Gellman's book.  I was expecting to find the book informative, but not so much to enjoy it, and so I was pleasantly surprised that my reading of Gellman's book went as well as it did.  I have learned that I enjoy political books that focus on personalities and ideology, not so much the nuts-and-bolts of policy, and Gellman did well on the former, for he gave a biographical background for key players as well as discussed their ideologies.  I loved learning about the left-wing Vito Marcantonio, the conservative William Knowland, the somewhat conservative Richard Nixon, and others.

In terms of Gellman's overall argument, I thought that Gellman did well to highlight that Nixon's opponents lost for reasons other than Nixon conducting a dirty campaign (for Gellman seems to deny that Nixon's campaigns even were dirty).  At the same time, questions persist in my mind.  Why were there people who thought that Nixon played dirty----in his campaigns, in his activity during the 1952 Republican National Convention, etc.?  Gellman talks about the phenomenon of Nixon-hating, and he maintains that Brashear's 1952 article was an example of that, but why were there people who hated Nixon?  Another question concerns whether Gellman accepts the narrative that Nixon engaged in dirty tricks later in his (meaning Nixon's) career----during his Presidency, for example.  If so, then to what would Gellman attribute Nixon's transition from a fairly honest politician and public servant to a crafty, shady political player who did not hesitate to play hardball against those he considered his enemies?  Was it because Nixon became bitter over the years?

There is a chance that I will refer to Gellman's work later in My Year (or More) of Nixon, for I will be reading some of the books that Gellman critiques, and so I'll probably return to Gellman to remind myself of what he thought was wrong with those books' arguments.

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