The California campaign for governor has dredged from political memory the infamous Senate race of 1950 between Richard M. Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein has compared a television ad aired on behalf of her opponent in the Democratic primary, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, to the smears against Douglas. But what was it like back then?
That 1950 race still ranks as one of the most hate-filled in California--and U.S.--political history. Nixon’s charges against Douglas purposely strayed toward character assassination. He questioned her loyalty, her “communist sympathies,” her Jewish husband’s loyalty and her votes in Congress, which were printed in the famous “pink sheet” that matched Douglas’ “yes” votes with those of radical New York Rep. Vito Marcantonio.
Nixon’s campaign strategist, Murray Chotiner, explained his campaign philosophy this way: “The purpose of an election is not to defeat your opponent, but to destroy him.”
In those frigid days of the Cold War, Nixon not only impugned Douglas’ loyalty, but called her the Pink Lady, “Pink right down to her underwear.” Press editorials dubbed Douglas “the darling of the Hollywood Parlour Pinks and Reds.”
Early versions of Nixon’s “dirty tricks” habits were sprinkled throughout the campaign. When Douglas appeared on the USC campus, a hay wagon full of initiates in the Skull and Dagger fraternity sprayed her with seltzer water and doused her with hay. Members of this fraternity turned up later as prominent Watergate characters--Donald Segretti, Gordon C. Strachan, Dwight Chapin and Herbert W. Kalmbach.
The infant dirty-tricks campaign against Douglas escalated, with Nixon surrogates doing most of the work. Anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer Gerald L.K. Smith toured Los Angeles radio stations exhorting voters to reject this woman “who sleeps with a Jew.”
A telephone campaign followed. When a voter answered the phone an unidentified voice would say, “Did you know that Helen Gahagan Douglas is married to a man whose real name is Hesselberg?” Douglas’ husband, actor Melvyn Douglas, was the Hesselberg in question, having taken a new last name for his career.
In the final weeks of the campaign an estimated 500,000 calls were placed. Promises to those who answered included “PRIZES GALORE!!!! Electric Clocks, Silex coffeemakers . . . General Electric automatic toastes . . . etc.” All voters had to do was pick up the phone at the right time. However, when the phones did ring, there were no prizes, just anonymous callers who would say, “Did you know Helen Gahagan Douglas was a Communist?” and hang up.
Nixon denied asking for any such help and refused responsibility for the tricks.
Reeling from the attacks, Douglas said that she felt she “was standing in the path of tanks.” She remembered the final days of the race: “The worst moment, a sight I couldn’t shake, was when children picked up rocks and threw them at my car, at me.”
Returning to the present, Feinstein’s charge stems from a Van de Kamp commercial holding the San Francisco mayor accountable for shortfalls in the city budget and in police and fire protection. Van de Kamp acknowledges tacit authorship of, and accepts responsibility for, these ads and airs them in public, open for debate.
So for Feinstein to suggest that Van de Kamp’s TV commercials are reminiscent of Nixon’s campaign against Douglas is at best an error in judgment. A darker interpretation would be that she is attempting to tar her opponent with “guilt by association,” a favored Nixon tactic.
Helen Gahagan Douglas, New Deal liberal and the only woman to ever win a major-party nomination for the U.S. Senate from California, would cringe if she heard Feinstein’s accusations, because they are proof that Nixon’s campaign tactics have become mainstream.