Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Jerry Voorhis: The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon 1

I started Jerry Voorhis' 1972-1973 book, The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon.  Jerry Voorhis was the Democratic incumbent whom Richard Nixon beat in his 1946 race for U.S. Congress.

I got this book because I wanted to read Voorhis' account of the 1946 campaign.  I wondered if Voorhis provided evidence for some of the charges that Irwin Gellman attempts to refute in The Contender, such as the contention that Nixon was financed by wealthy financiers.  Moreover, I was interested in learning more about Voorhis, for he made a good impression on me when I was reading about him in Gellman's The Contender.  Voorhis struck me as a statesman who wasn't afraid to take on the special interests, and who had a genuine heart for the poor.

When I received the book, I was initially disappointed, but then the book attracted me.  The book actually does not talk much about the 1946 campaign.  Rather, by and large, the book is a sustained critique of President Richard Nixon's policies from a leftist perspective (though, like a number of liberals, Voorhis prefers the term "moderate").  I think that it's important for me to read this book for my Year (or More) of Nixon because my impression is that you don't see too many critiques of Nixon's domestic policies from a progressive standpoint.  There are leftists who praise Nixon's domestic policies as rather progressive, especially when they are compared with the ideology of today's tea party and other right-wingers.  And I have a John Bircher book that criticizes Nixon's domestic policies from the right.  But, other than Voorhis' book, I don't think that I have too many books that offer a leftist critique of Nixon's domestic policies.  But, come to think of it, I have not read all of my books on Nixon (such as Rick Perlstein's Nixonland).   

As I started my reading of Voorhis, I realized that I would have to shift gears a bit, especially after reading the two volumes of Richard Nixon's memoirs.  In Nixon's memoirs, Nixon portrays himself as a President who was trying to do the right and reasonable thing against an obstructionist and hypocritical Democratic Congress, which did not pass a number of his bright (and necessary) ideas, overrode his justifiable vetoes, and criticized him for doing things that Democratic Presidents had done, such as impounding funds.  Voorhis, not surprisingly, offers a different perspective.  Voorhis presents Nixon as the obstructionist one, who vetoed, watered down, and probably unconstitutionally (in Voorhis' eyes) impounded necessary help for the poor and the vulnerable.  Voorhis, as Gellman essentially depicted him in The Contender, is somewhat of a policy wonk, who really gets into the nitty-gritty of public policy.  And yet, I'm impressed that Voorhis is still able to explain clearly how policies concretely impact people, especially the poor and the struggling.

Voorhis emphasizes that he is not writing this book out of bitterness against Nixon.  Actually, Voorhis says that Nixon did him a favor, for, after leaving Congress, Voorhis did work that he loved: he became the Executive Director of the Cooperative League of the U.S.A., which worked at "building 'grass roots' economic and social organizations and enterprises" (page 9).  One can tell just by reading Voorhis' critiques of President Nixon's domestic policies that Voorhis believes that coops and grass roots programs are important.  Voorhis argues that co-ops of small farmers are institutions that can help small farmers to survive against the huge farming corporations, which are able to purchase more capital and to release cheaper crops onto the market.  Voorhis also speaks highly of programs that are administered with input or direction by the poor themselves.  This sounds similar to the conservative view that problems are best solved by people who are closest to them, such as state and local governments and private charities.

And yet, Voorhis is not particularly a fan of President Nixon's revenue-sharing proposals.  Voorhis also mentions a Democrat's proposal to centralize welfare, such that the federal government would run it and establish a standard set of guidelines, rather than having states come up with their own guidelines.  (I'm not sure if Voorhis supported that proposal, but he did not criticize it.)  For Voorhis, the federal government should be doing certain things, and yet there should be input by the people directly affected by the federal programs.

Regarding Voorhis' account of the 1946 Congressional election, Voorhis essentially narrates that he was the victim of the Nixon-Chotiner (Murray Chotiner consulted Nixon's political campaigns) smear campaign, which unfairly tried to attach him to disloyalty and Communist subversion, even though he had a sterling record of supporting and even authoring anti-Communist policies.  While Voorhis acknowledges that he was briefly a Socialist during the 1920's, he denies that this was subversive, for the Communists actually opposed the Socialists at that time.  Voorhis says that Nixon-Chotiner used the same strategy against others (i.e., Helen Gahagan Douglas, Adlai Stevenson) that they used against him, and yet, when Nixon later became more open to outreach towards Communist countries, Nixon grabbed onto another issue than Communism to attack his political opponents: Nixon accused his opponents of not being sufficiently in favor of law and order, amidst the crime and political unrest of the late 1960's-1970's.  Not only does Voorhis find Nixon's charge to be absurd----for every politician wants law and order----but Voorhis also contends that Nixon cynically exploited unrest for his own political purposes.  According to Voorhis, Nixon welcomed hecklers and anti-war activists, for their disruption of his events gave him the opportunity to look like a champion of law-and-order, as well as a victim of a real problem.

I have two more items, before I end this post.  First, on page 21, Voorhis talks about Communist China, within the context of Nixon's exploitation of the Red Scare in the 1950's.  Voorhis speculates that, had the United States given the Communists in China a hearing way back when they were fighting the corrupt Chiang Kaishek, perhaps it could have developed a fruitful relationship with Red China, which would have widened the "rift in the Communist world", specifically (I presume) that between the Soviet Union and Red China.  Instead, those who supported such a policy were deemed to be subversives, as Nixon exploited the Red Scare.  And yet, was not reaching out to Communist China to take advantage of the rift within the Communist world the strategy that President Richard Nixon employed a couple of decades later?

Second, on page 20, Voorhis paints Nixon as shady and sinister during the 1952 Republican National Convention.  According to Voorhis, "Mr. Nixon had conducted a private poll of California voters at taxpayers' expense using his convenient franking privilege, and had 'reluctantly' let it be known that the poll results favored General Eisenhower over Governor [Earl] Warren."  This, according to Voorhis, influenced a number of California delegates to ditch Warren in favor of Eisenhower, and thus made Nixon the logical choice for Eisenhower's running-mate.  You can read about Nixon and Gellman's response to this sort of narrative here, but what stood out to me was Voorhis' statement that Nixon conducted the poll at taxpayers' expense.  One of Nixon's prominent claims in his 1952 Checkers Speech was that he had a political fund because he did not want to charge political expenses to the taxpayers.  Yet, there are people who seem to have alleged that Nixon did precisely that, at times.  Voorhis states that Nixon used taxpayer money for a private poll, and Greg Mitchell states (according to my vague recollection) in Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady that Nixon sent information about the Alger Hiss trial to California to make himself look good, at taxpayer expense. 

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