All right, guys. I think we almost have enough background to actually get start thinking about the Watergate scandal itself.
(I thought I would get here sooner. But, well, life and all…)
Anyway. We’ve already talked about the Democratic National Convention in 1968, which featured police in riot gear, Dan Rather getting knocked down and Walter Cronkite calling the security in Chicago “a bunch of thugs.” When the Convention began, there were three leading candidates still in the running: George McGovern, who appealed to Robert Kennedy voters; Eugene McCarthy, the peace candidate; and sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was seen as the establishment candidate.
At the end of the convention, Humphrey, who had not entered any of the primaries (at the time only 13 primary elections were held) had been chosen as the candidate. About 80% of Democrats were opposed to the war in Vietnam, but the peace plank was stripped from the party’s platform. Democrats were left with a candidate many of them felt they could not support. And the Vice Presidential candidate, Edmund Muskie, didn’t help matters. Muskie, as we discussed previously, was noted as an environmentalist and a moderate. Many Democrats felt that the ticket leaned too far toward conservative interests.
The ticket also marked the end of the New Deal coalition. The union, urban, political-machine faction was happy with the nominee. The anti-war members of the party, joined by college students, intellectuals, Catholics, ethnic minorities, and white southern Democrats all thought they had been betrayed. The split in the party resulted in George Wallace running as a white supremacist–and carrying five southern states.
Would all of this have happened if Johnson had stayed in the race? Or if he had named one of these men as his preferred candidate and successor? We’ll never know.
On the Republican side of the aisle, things were less controversial. The Republicans had been out of power for a while; they didn’t have a coalition to depend on or to preserve. They had a number of candidates, including California Governor Ronald Reagan, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Michigan Governor George Romney (yes, Mitt Romney’s dad). In the end, they chose Richard Nixon.
I think that Nixon’s very name conjures the Boogeyman. When I was growing up, jokes about him abounded. It’s really hard for me to look at him without the weight of later events interfering with my objectivity. Still, I’ll try.
Nixon had grown up in California, where his father owned a gas station. His older brother contracted pneumonia and died from it in 1933, when Nixon was 20 years old. His mother nursed his brother throughout his illness. As a result, although Nixon was offered a grant to attend Harvard, he was needed at home so he attended Whittier College instead. After his brother passed away, Nixon was offered a scholarship to brand-new Duke University School of Law, which he accepted.
After graduating third in his class at Duke, he wanted to be an FBI agent but budget cuts kept him from being offered a job. Instead he went home to Whittier, California, where he got married and started a family. In January 1942, he moved back east, this time to Washington DC, where he worked in the Office of Price Administration in the tire rationing division. Eventually he received a commission in the U.S. Navy, and was on active service in Iowa, California, and Guadalcanal until 1946.
In 1947, a family friend suggested that Nixon would make a great Republican candidate for Congress from the California district that included Whittier. He won that election and made a name for himself as an anti-Communist, an advocate of the Marshall Plan (which would keep Europe from starving–and avoid a Communist takeover), and he famously pushed for the prosecution of Alger Hiss.
In 1950 he ran for Senate. It was during this campaign that he earned the nickname “Tricky Dick.”
The Senate seat in question was held by Sheridan Downey, a Democrat. Downey withdrew from the race during the primary and endorsed Manchester Boddy, a newspaper publisher. But the winner of the primary was Helen Gahagan Douglas.
Downey endorsed Nixon, the Republican candidate. And also, a Democratic candidate. Under the rules at that time, Nixon was allowed to enter primaries for both parties, so he did. His campaign produced a flyer for the Democratic primary, with pictures showing him during his service in the Navy, surrounded by his wife and daughters at home, and referring to his involvement with the Hiss case. It didn’t say anywhere that he wasn’t a Democrat.
The actual Democrat, Helen Gahagan Douglas had been an actress and opera singer. She first became political in Europe, where she had coffee with a man who turned out to be a Nazi. The experience made her sick, so she returned to America, where she joined the Anti-Nazi League. In the 1930s, as a friend of the Roosevelts, she became interested in and active for the rights of migrant workers. In 1944 she won her first election to the U.S. Congress.
Now, here’s the trick part…
In the 1950 Senate primary, Boddy had referred to Douglas as “pink,” famously saying that she was “pink right down to her underwear.” I know, it’s weird to our ears. To their ears, it meant that she had communist sympathies. Nixon picked up on this rhetoric and used it to his advantage.
In other words, he ran a negative campaign, intent on destroying Douglas’ character.
His campaign produced 500,000 copies of a flyer on pink paper, so it became known as the Pink Sheet. The Pink Sheet didn’t compare Douglas and Nixon, though; it compared Douglas and Vito Marcantonio, a New York Congressman who was widely thought to be a Communist. The Nixon campaign also used anti-Semitism through surrogates, who whispered that Douglas’ husband was Jewish. And, you know, probably a Communist.
It gets worse.
Helen Gahagan Douglas was a woman. And she was fighting a lot more than Richard Nixon and his tricks.
Democrats, Republicans, and newspapers alike campaigned against her. When she arrived for an appearance in Santa Clara, the local columnist reported that she had arrived on time, “sufficiently remarkable for any woman.” News coverage focused on what she looked like, not so much on what she said. Still, she was confident of winning; she regarded Nixon as a “pipsqueak” and thought money wouldn’t win him the election.
It’s 2017. We all know how this story ends.
With Nixon being elected to the Senate, and Douglas ending her political career.
Nixon went on to be Eisenhower’s Vice President, and he was the Republican candidate who lost to Kennedy in 1960. But he was already known as Tricky Dick when he accepted the nomination in 1968.