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The Russians Are Coming

TRICKY DICK AND THE PINK LADY Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950 By Greg Mitchell Random House: 316 pp., $25

February 15, 1998|ALLEN WEINSTEIN | Allen Weinstein is the author of the recently reissued "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case." His new book, "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America," with co-author Alexander Vassiliev, will be published later this year

The most significant U.S. Senate contest in modern America occurred in California in 1950, when Republican Rep. Richard Nixon and Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas squared off in a bitter struggle to win the seat held by a retiring incumbent. Nixon's earlier role in the 1948 House Un-American Activities Committee phase of the Hiss-Chambers case had brought him national recognition. Defeating Douglas made him a prime candidate for the GOP vice presidential nomination in 1952, and Douglas, an accomplished actress before entering Congress in 1944, had her legislative career ended by a landslide loss.

The Nixon-Douglas contest emerged against the backdrop of the Cold War. Abroad, U.S. troops waged a difficult "police action" to repel North Korea's invasion of the South that by year's end had also brought Chinese armies into the conflict. At home, the political battles of an evolving "Red Scare" raged at universities, in the motion picture and television industries, in libraries and community groups and in a series of House and Senate races. The 1950 election decimated the ranks of Democratic officials. The party lost 28 House seats and five in the Senate, with the patently false charge of being "soft on communism" playing a major role in the campaigns' outcome.

Both domestic and international events in 1950 conspired to reinforce public anxieties over a Communist menace at home, as well as abroad. Alger Hiss was convicted in January on perjury charges related to his involvement in Soviet espionage during the 1930s. Weeks later, Sen. Joseph McCarthy launched his reckless attacks on alleged Communist traitors who had worked for the USSR and infiltrated the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. That year also witnessed the start of the Korean War, the consolidation of Communist control of China, a continuing European threat posed by the Soviet Union in Stalin's final years and the arrests in both Britain and the United States of members of a small group accused of World War II atomic espionage for the Soviet Union. A host of conflicts was also ongoing within American society over blacklisting, loyalty oaths and other internal security issues. The result was a heightened popular awareness of communism as a domestic political issue in the fall campaigns. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Nixon-Douglas race, the subject of Greg Mitchell's exhaustive study, "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas--Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950."

Mitchell's book is an extremely readable primer on a pivotal episode in Nixon's rise to national prominence and power. Mitchell draws heavily on the existing body of Nixon scholarship, and readers of biographies, such as Roger Morris' "Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician," will recognize both the broad outlines and many details of the 1950 Senate race that appear in "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady." The title comes from nicknames attached to the candidates in the 1950 race by their political opponents. Nixon's remains a widely popular designation among his adversaries.

The author confirms that Douglas was victimized during the contest by the Nixon camp's relentless and untrue allegations of her purported pro-Communist sympathies and voting record. The Republican candidate and his campaign workers distributed a so-called "pink sheet" (on pink paper, no less) that cataloged Douglas' votes on certain internal security issues, which were identical to those cast by ultra-left New York Rep. Vito Marcantonia; hence the "Pink Lady" tag.

Douglas was not a radical, however; simply one of many New Deal Democrats who were more liberal on domestic issues than the Truman administration and, as a result, subjected to attack by Republicans as well as by conservatives within her own party. Mitchell notes, for example, that it was not Nixon but Douglas' unsuccessful Democratic primary opponent Manchester Boddy who first linked her to what Boddy called "a statewide conspiracy on the part of [a] small subversive clique of red-hots to capture, through stealth and cunning, the nerve centers of our Democratic Party." Nixon and his associates, including chief campaign strategist Murray Chotiner, adopted Boddy's "red-hot" theme and gave it statewide distribution through hundreds of thousands of "Pink Lady" fliers, radio and television spots and numerous campaign speeches.

"Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady" provides a lively overview of the candidates, their political associates and the often unsavory tactics used during the 1950 campaign. Several aspects of the book plow useful, occasionally unfamiliar, ground. Thus, the author argues that Douglas was victimized not only by Nixon's exploitation of anti-Communist fervor but also by a strong undercurrent of "sexual politics"--condemning his opponent, in other words, both as "pink" and as a "lady."

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