Helen Gahagan Douglas Redux
I apologize in advance for the shameless bit of name dropping that is about to take place…..but I remember asking Henry Fonda why he so disliked RN — was it because of Vietnam (the conversation took place the spring of 1972) or the economy or something else?
I was prepared for almost any answer other than the one I received.
He thought for a moment and said: “No, I think he’s trying to end the war as fast as he can, and I don’t think the President has that much impact on the economy. But I would go anywhere and do anything I could to stop Richard Nixon because I will never forget or forgive what he did to Helen Gahagan Douglas.”
The bitterness of that 1950 Senate campaign lived on —indeed, lives on— and tonight, at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles, a screening of the Palin-Biden debate will be followed by a staged reading of the play Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas, written by Michele Willens and Wendy Kout.
The production will feature Wendie Malick as Mrs. Douglas, Charles Shaughnessy as Mr. (actor Melvyn) Douglas, Patrick Breen as RN, and Michael Dutra as everyone else (in this case including HST, LBJ, and JFK).
It’s a benefit sponsored by, among others, John Cusask, Robert Redford, Tim Daly, Gore Vidal, and Mike Farrell. The event will also honor Paul Newman, and the proceeds from the $100 ducats will go to The Nation magazine.
I can’t say that the description of the work on the Landmark Theatre’s website exactly bodes well for accuracy or objectivity:
Historians say that politics as we know it changed as a result of a California Senate race in 1950. That’s when a young Richard Nixon falsely accused his opponent, the beautiful, three term liberal congresswoman and ex-Broadway and opera star, Helen Gahagan Douglas, of being a Communist. Nixon earned the name “Tricky Dick,” Helen was dubbed the “Pink Lady.” He ascended to the Presidency… until Watergate. She was forgotten… until now. This four actor (one plays multiple roles) play, set in Hollywood and Washington D.C., builds to that dirty, dramatic race while telling the cautionary personal tale of Helen, a flawed and remarkable heroine.
I understand that this is hype. But, even so…..
- I’m sure that there have been a few —or even, given the numbers of historians, many— historians who say that politics as we know it changed as a result of the Nixon-Douglas race. But they would be very myopic (and, frankly, very poor) historans indeed. It was a colorful and, in terms of RN’s subsequent career, a consequential race — but not much more than that.
- It is simply not true on any reading of the facts that RN accused Mrs. Douglas “of being a Communist”.
- Nor is it really true that she has been forgotten until now. She was quite active and vocal and lionized for many years until her death in 1980 and her memory has lived on as one of the earliest victims of Nixonian mendacity.
However, there’s no question that it’s a highly dramatic story with lots of vivid characters and flashpoints, so there’s no reason that it shouldn’t make a smashing play — and maybe that’s just what will unfold on stage at the Landmark tonight. We’ll have to wait for the reviews to find out.
Helen Douglas was born in New Jersey in 1900. She was a major star of Broadway musicals in the 1920s. In 1931 she married actor Melvyn Douglas and moved to California. She only made one movie —1935’s adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s exotic story She (as in “she who must be obeyed”).
Her liberal political activism in Hollywood brought her to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt who introduced her to the President. In 1943 she was elected to the House of Representatives and from her earliest days in Washington she was welcome at the White House. As Robert Caro has chronicled, during those years she carried on an open affair with Lyndon Johnson; indeed, they lived together while their respective spouses remained at home.
In 1948 she was elected to her third House term, and in 1950 she decided to challenge the incumbent two term Democrat, Sheridan Downey, for his seat in the U.S. Senate. This was a no less bold or even shocking move in those days than it would be now. The aggressiveness of her attacks led to conflict within the Democratic party and put steel in Downey’s back (he had been suffering from an ulcer and had considered not standing for re-election).
Helen Gahagan Douglas was a quintessential unreconstructed left-liberal New Dealer who was instinctively anti-communist but who felt equally strongly that communism represented no meaningful threat to American security or interests. Her votes (for the Marshall Plan but against Truman Plan aid to Greece or Turkey) reflected this kind of dichotomy. Within the context of the times it made her vulnerable to criticism and attack from the center and right of her own party as well as from the Republicans. It also placed her clearly outside the mainstream of public opinion in California and the nation.
She was one of only twenty congresspersons of either party to vote against the McCarran-Wood bill requiring registration of communists. This may be viewed as a highly principled act — but principles can’t logically be adduced post facto as reasons for contemporary immunity from political consequences.
She also took sides on State-related issues that, while undoubtedly also principled, were unquestionably also controversial. She was, for example, the only member of the California delegation opposed to the return of the offshore oil-rich tidelands to the State. And she was one of a small minority on the highly-charged issues involving land ownership and water rights.
Perhaps it was her show business temperament —where she was used to being a star and receiving star treatment— or perhaps too much of her “she who must be obeyed” role had rubbed off, but whatever the reasons she was not known for her collegial approach to an institution that was, above all else, intensely collegial.
There was also, no doubt, an element of outright chauvinism at work. At best she would have been less than welcome as a woman in what was resolutely a man’s world. That she wasn’t even a compliant or retiring woman would have been further held against her.
As RN recorded in RN:
Mrs. Douglas was a handsome woman with a dramatic presence. She had many fans among the public and many admirers in the press and in the entertainment industry, but she was not, to put it mildly, the most popular member of the House of Representatives. Generally, when two members of the House run against each other for another office their fellow congressmen maintain a friendly attitude and wish both of them well. But in our case, even many of the House Democrats let me know that they hoped I could defeat Helen Douglas.
One afternoon in 1950, I was working in my office when Dorothy Cox, my personal secretary, came in and said, “Congressman Kennedy is here and would like to talk to you.”
Jack Kennedy was ushered in and I motioned him into a chair. He took an envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to me. “Dick, I know you’re in for a pretty rough campaign,” he said, “and my father wanted to help out.”
We talked for a while about the campaign. As he rose to leave, he said, “I obviously can’t endorse you, but it isn’t going to break my heart if you can turn the Senate’s loss into Hollywood’s gain.”
After he left I opened the envelope and found it contained a $1,000 contribution. Three days after I won in November, Kennedy told an informal gathering of professors and students at Harvard that he was personally very happy that I had defeated Mrs. Douglas.
President Truman had his reservations about Mrs. Douglas, and although he sent many representatives and Cabinet members to campaign for her, he canceled his own scheduled appearances.
When Sheridan Downey’s ulcer finally forced him to withdraw from the campaign in March, he was immediately replaced by the maverick Los Angeles newspaper publisher Manchester Boddy. Downey was so bitter about what he referred to as the “vicious and unethical propaganda” Mrs. Douglas had used against him that he said she was unqualified to be a Senator and remained uninvolved in the campaign (despite Truman’s requests for reconciliation).
Boddy, who had supported her congressional campaigns, called her an extremist and issued a detailed comparison of her voting record with that of New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who was considered to be the gold standard of sympathy with socialist and communist causes.
The primary was held in June and RN received one million votes; Mrs. Douglas 890,000; and Manchester Boddy 535,000. Twenty-two percent of Democratic voters crossed over and voted for RN, compared with thirteen percent of Republican crossovers who voted for her.
After Mrs. Douglas won the primary, the Nixon campaign adopted the Boddy campaign’s Marcantonio ad in toto and reprinted it on pink stock. It became known as “the pink sheet” and was widely seen (and, in liberal quarters, disparaged) as an example of a Nixon smear. The fact that the substance of the charges had emerged from the Democratic Party’s own primary fight was ignored as an inconvenient truth in the high dudgeon over the color of the paper.
It has also conveniently been forgotten that Mrs. Douglas, presumably intending to frame the issue in her favor with a preemptive strike, fired the first mud salvo. Before the Nixon campaign had even powered up, she called him a “demagogue” who was selling “fear and…..nice, unadulterated fascism.” Her literature denigrated him as a “Peewee trying to frighten people so that they are too afraid to turn out the lights.” She referred to “the backwash of Republican young men in dark shirts” at a time when such words were still recent and potent references to Hitler’s brown and Mussolini’s black shirted thugs. Her campaign put out rumors that Pat Nixon was a lapsed Catholic.
And Mrs. Douglas even had her own rather bizarre version of the “pink sheet”. The “yellow sheet” was a handbill printed on yellow stock in which she claimed that it was Nixon whose record actually matched the controversial Marcantonio’s. There were some instances in which this was literally true; but, as a campaign ploy, this was, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain weird.
The decision to attack —and to attack first— turned out to be a major miscalculation. It seemed to prevent her own campaign from defining itself, and it undoubtedly shaped the Nixon camp’s response. Whatever excesses RN may (or may not) have committed, it should at least be remembered who first crossed that muddy Rubicon.
Most of these have been largely forgotten. But there is one still-lingering legacy of the 1950 Senate campaign: Mrs. Douglas’s memorable labeling of RN as “Tricky Dick”.
There is no doubt that the campaign included heated, intense, and, occasionally, distasteful levels of excess on both sides. Even the judicious Herbert Parmet concludes that Mrs. Douglas’ “campaign operators operated with the élan of apprentice butchers and the tactics of desperation.” But because (a) RN won and (b) RN was RN, the parity of blame has been all but universally overlooked.
The nature of public discourse at the time —and particularly where questions of New Deal liberalism and communist influence in Washington were concerned— was generally hyperbolic and often extreme. But a lot of the phrases and epithets that are cringe-making by today’s standards were pretty much par for the course back in the day, and should be analyzed in that context.
I remember being invited to dinner one night at La Casa Pacifica in 1977 when the Nixons were entertaining James and Mary Roosevelt. James —“Jimmy”— was FDR’s eldest son; he had run unsuccessfully for Governor against the two-term incumbent Earl Warren in 1950; and he had stood in for Mrs. Douglas when she decided to stay in Washington rather than face RN in the first of their three scheduled public debates.
Jimmy Roosevelt laughed as he remembered how he had been pressed into service at the last minute, and how typical that had been of Mrs. Douglas’s high handed personal manner and generally badly run campaign. He said that he hadn’t had enough time to prepare, but that even if he had, his heart wasn’t really in it.
Mrs. Douglas walked out of the third debate after she had made her own speech, so she only faced off with RN once — in a debate that he handily won. Another Roosevelt figured in that second (the only face-to-face) debate, when RN created quite a stir and achieved something of a coup by holding up a letter and announcing that it was an endorsement of him by Mrs. Roosevelt. He read it all through before he reached the punchline — the signature was “Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.”.
I later had the opportunity to interview the legendary lawyer, civic leader, and Democratic power broker Paul Ziffren, who had been one of the managers of Mrs. Douglas’s ’50 campaign. He reminisced in fascinating detail about the whole exercise. He laughed —fondly— about the candidate’s highly impolitic way of conducting politics and said that the campaign had been very dirty on both sides. Newspaper endorsements ran twenty-to-one in RN’s favor.
In the end, RN won by 19% — almost 700,000 votes. The results were: 2,183,454 to 1,502,507. His victory was part of the usual off-year trend in which the opposition party picks up seats. In this case, there were five new Republicans in the Senate and 28 in the House. Aside from her own problems and her poorly run campaign, it can’t have helped Mrs. Douglas that the Korean War had begun in June; or that, two days before the election, Chinese communist troops escalated the conflict by crossing the Yalu River.
I think that Conrad Black’s judgment is informed and balanced:
It is hard not to like and admire Helen Douglas at a distance; glamorous, courageous, and principled, she fought gamely against lengthening odds, and was soundly defeated by a politician who has received little subsequent approbation. But she had made herself vulnerable, did nothing to reunite her party behind her, opened the floodgates of negative campaigning, was thoroughly disorganized, and ran a sophomoric campaign. She also had a number of rather prissy, soft-left views that were unsound in themselves and wildly out of concert with the place and times.
This brings up another —and I think underestimated— aspect of RN’s career. Sometimes the luck of the draw means that a politician will have to run against someone who, in purely physical terms, embodies the public’s and the media’s idea of what the ideal candidate should look and sound like. But untll he was paired with Hubert Humphrey in 1968, RN had the truly extraordinary bad luck of having to run every time against candidates who would have been sent from central casting in response to requests for a “perfect” candidate.
When RN challenged him in 1946, the press corps had just named the tweedy suave Jerry Voorhis as the most popular congressman in Washington. Mrs. Douglas was, literally, a star; and JFK carried himself lke one. Adlai Stevenson was the media’s beau ideal of the enlightened liberal politician. And Pat Brown was an immensely likable and appealing fellow.
It was easy for RN —the serious, striving, somewhat stiff young man with the heavy brow and the five o’clock shadow— to be unfavorably contrasted with the actual or invested star quality of his opponents.
In the case of Mrs. Douglas, RN also became an ongoing lightning rod for a lot of the enmity that her candidacy occasioned within her own professional community. Although she was well and widely liked in Hollywood, there were some who found her air of Broadway superiority annoying; and there were many who found her politics personally uncongenial and even considered them embarrassing for the industry. Many of the studio heads and major stars supported RN, and long after the election was over, the strong and divisive emotions it had engendered lingered on.
There’s some fascinating footage of the 1950 campaign —along with some tendentious narrative portentously delivered— in this documentary excerpt.
There is one widespread canard —at least I’m convinced it’s a canard— that I would like to challenge. It is generally accepted that during the 1950 campaign, RN referred to Mrs. Douglas as being “pink right down to her underwear”.
Although many of the accounts make it sound as if this were a recurring punchline of his campaign rhetoric, there is no record of his having said it in public. The actual claim —such as it is— is only that he said it once at a closed meeting of campaign contributors.
The only original citation I have been able to track down is an article printed several years later in The New Republic in which it is reported, at second hand, as having been spoken at the fat cat session.
So the story is pretty thin —and I would suggest suspect— on purely factual grounds.
But it also strikes me as improbable given the nature of the man and the nature of the times. Despite the apparent contrary evidence of the White House tape recordings, RN was, throughout his life, highly circumspect in his use of language both in private and in public — but especially in public. Many people today think RN cursed like a sailor; but even when he was a sailor, his cursing was situation-based and highly selective.
In light of today’s coarsened public discourse, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when talk about the color of female undergarments would have been considered inappropriate and even risque. But there was and that time was 1950.
And in 1950 RN was still generally seen (and especially by his supporters) as a serious, modest, earnest, clean-cut ex-Naval officer by whose dogged determination the Hiss case had been broken. RN, at the age of thirty-seven and running for his first statewide office, was not going to stand up in front of a group of older and established business and community leaders, many of whom he hardly knew, and make what would have been considered as an off-color remark.
I have no doubt that this was a widely quoted quip during the 1950 campaign; and it seems likely to have emerged from RN’s campaign. The way for its widespread acceptance had already been cleared by the undisputedly official pink sheet.
But unless and until I can find at least an additional —and dependable— source for RN himself having said it, I’m not buying it.