In 1950, Richard Nixon ran against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate. In this post, I'll compare and contrast two authors' portrayals of two public appearances that Nixon and Douglas made together. The first author is Irwin Gellman, who wrote The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946-1952. The second is Greg Mitchell, who wrote Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas----Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950.
1. Nixon and Douglas appeared together at the Commonwealth Club
in San Francisco. According to Gellman, Nixon showed the audience a
one-hundred dollar check that he said he had received from Eleanor
Roosevelt, along with a note from Mrs. Roosevelt that stated: "I wish it
could be ten times more. Best wishes for your success & kindness
regards to you & your lovely wife." The audience gasped, then,
according to Gellman, Nixon told his listeners that he, too, was
surprised, until he learned that the Mrs. Roosevelt who wrote him the
check was Eleanor B. Roosevelt, the wife of Theodore Roosevelt II.
Gellman narrates that "The audience roared with laughter while Douglas
According to Mitchell, however, there are actually two
versions of that story, based on different descriptions of what
happened. Mitchell says that this appearance by Nixon and Douglas was
before the Press Club in San Francisco in May (presumably in 1950). In
the first version of the story, Nixon told his audience that the check
was from the Eleanor Roosevelt who was closely related to Theodore
Roosevelt, not from the wife of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In
the second version, however, Nixon did not clarify to his audience which
Eleanor Roosevelt sent him the check, "leaving his opponent and the
audience to figure it out afterwards" (page 37). Douglas was confused
and thus did not deliver her speech effectively when it was her turn to
Both Gellman and Mitchell cite many of the same sources, such as Helen Douglas' autobiography. Gellman even cites Mitchell!
Nixon and Douglas appeared together in Beverly Hills. Gellman based
his story of this event on the testimony of Bill Arnold, who advised
Nixon's campaign. Gellman cites Arnold's book, Back When It All Began.
According to Arnold, Nixon came to the event on time and spoke first.
Douglas was late, and when she went onto the stage, Nixon mocked her by
"gesturing to his watch" (Gellman's words on page 305). The audience
laughed, and Douglas did not know why. When she spoke, Nixon was
sitting behind her, and Nixon fidgeted and crossed his knees over and
over to show that he was impatient. When she finished, Nixon got up to
address the audience again. But Douglas left early rather than staying
to listen to Nixon. Gellman states on page 305 that "Arnold realized
that if this had been a debate, and if points had been awarded for
speechmaking, his candidate would have won."
Mitchell tells the
story differently. According to Mitchell, the League of Women Voters
invited Nixon and Douglas to a debate at the Beverly Hills High School
one week before Election Day. Douglas accepted only after Nixon said
that he could not attend due to another commitment he had made. But a
Nixonite related that, actually, Nixon and his advisers on the night
that the event would take place "left an out-of-town campaign appearance
early and rushed back to Los Angeles" (Mitchell's words on page 234).
Roy Day and Nixon hid out at the Beverly Hills Hotel, while their car
waited outside, and Nixon's campaign manager Murray Chotiner went to the
high school to listen to Douglas. When they heard from Chotiner, Nixon
and Day rushed to their car and went to the event. At Nixon's arrival,
Republicans in the audience clapped and stomped their feet, disrupting
Douglas' speech. Nixon went backstage and sat behind Douglas while she
was speaking, continually crossing his legs and looking at his watch.
The audience laughed, and Douglas slumped her shoulders, answered just
one question, then left, telling the audience that he had another
meeting to get to. Nixon then "tore her to shreds", according to Roy
Day. Another witness said that Nixon called Helen Douglas "Mrs.
Hesselberg", which referred to the name of her husband (a Jew) before he
changed it to "Douglas". Some of the Democrats, some of whom were
Jews, booed when Nixon said this, then, "according to Douglas backer
Jean Sieroty, Republicans and Democrats nearly came to blows" (Mitchell
on page 234).
Whom do I believe, when it comes to these accounts?
Regarding the first appearance, I can see Nixon telling his audience
that the Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote him the check was Mrs. Theodore
Roosevelt II. Perhaps those who testified otherwise did not hear Nixon
say that, either because their hearing or the acoustics was poor, or
they were not paying attention. On the other hand, maybe Nixon did not
tell them the identity of the Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote him the check,
they learned which Eleanor Roosevelt she was soon thereafter, and, when
they remembered the event at a later point, they conflated the event
with learning about which Eleanor Roosevelt it was. Their memory mixed
things up, perhaps.
Regarding the second appearance, both accounts
look plausible. I tend to believe Roy Day, though. Bill Arnold may
have remembered the event through rose-colored glasses, or perhaps he
did not want to make Nixon look like an immature prankster, but rather
as someone who was punctual. Roy Day, however, was just reminiscing
about the good old days (in his eyes). On the other hand, could Roy Day
have been exaggerating, the way that (say) some fraternity people
exaggerate their feats? I don't know.
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