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Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas--Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950

by Greg Mitchell

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-41621-8
Publisher: Random House

 As he did in The Campaign of the Century (1992), about Upton Sinclair's 1934 California gubernatorial campaign, Mitchell here explores a legendary forerunner of modern mass-media elections: the 1950 Senate contest between Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas. The race featured two ambitious members of Congress bored by their lack of influence. Democrat Douglas, a former actress, had the looks, intelligence, and charisma to inspire talk of a presidential bid someday. Nixon, though scorned by liberals for his dogged pursuit of Alger Hiss, was already being mentioned as a potential GOP vice presidential candidate. The mutual antipathy ran deep: Nixon, resentful of Douglas's wealth and uncomfortable with her assertiveness, pithily combined red-baiting and sexism by claiming that she was ``pink all the way down to her underwear,'' while Douglas popularized the nickname ``Tricky Dick.'' Inevitably, Nixon's stress on the communist threat gained credibility from ominous national headlines about the Rosenberg spy case, the Korean War, and Joseph McCarthy. Nixon's campaign micromanagement, fat-cat fundraising, and dirty politics (e.g., veiled anti-Semitic references to Douglas's movie-star husband, Melvyn) sound like a harbinger of Watergate. Still, though he effectively mines newly discovered Nixon letters and memos, Mitchell does not account for the dimension and significance of Douglas's loss. First, she also fell victim to President Truman's late endorsement, wounds left by her primary campaign, her inferiority to Nixon as a debater, and an intemperate stump style (e.g., calling Nixon's followers ``brownshirts'') that wasn't always distinguishable from GOP mudslinging. Second, Mitchell overlooks the shifting demographics (including the roles of Catholics and suburbanites) that paved the way for conservatives like Nixon. Revealing in details, but superficial in analyzing how Douglas, like later liberal Michael Dukakis, was so vulnerable to conservatives' media manipulation. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)