Mitchell's 'Tricky Dick': Original Nixon

January 25, 1998|By Paul Duke | Paul Duke,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady," by Greg Mitchell. Random House. 316 pages. $25.

This book is essentially a study in character - the bad character of Richard Nixon - and the malevolent tactics that were employed to destroy his opponent in the most notorious Senate contest of this century.

Much has been written about the celebrated 1950 battle between Nixon and Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, but Greg Mitchell is the first to so thoroughly document just how savage and sordid a campaign it was. The Nixon triumph - actually, an easy victory as it turned out - catapulted the young anticommunist crusader into the front ranks of rising Republican stars destined for greater things.

It also was a forerunner of what lay ahead with its exposure of Nixon's darker side. That side has been forcefully catalogued anew in recent months with the release of additional White House tapes further revealing his paranoia and prejudices. As Mitchell points out, the demons that seemed to possess him were plainly visible at an early age.

And, they sent him on his way. By 1950, the ambitious Nixon had already made headlines as a prominent member of the House Un-American Activities Committee in its relentless pursuit of Communist activities in government. It was an issue tailor-made for Nixon, one that he pressed forcefully in the Senate race. The result was a cynical and calculated effort to portray the liberal Douglas, a glamorous and well- known actress before her election to the House in 1944, as a dupe of the Red menace and someone of questionable patriotism. As Nixon often put it, she was "pink right down to her underwear." But Mitchell makes clear that Nixon was not the only villain in this political horror story.

With the country swept up in a wave of anticommunist hysteria, even many otherwise loyal Democrats deserted Douglas. The Catholic Church worked against her. Several Hollywood studios collaborated on a Nixon propaganda film and many of the industry's biggest big shots energetically supported his candidacy.

The press also lent a helping hand. The staunchly right-wing Los Angeles Times flagrantly slanted its campaign coverage Nixon's way and never once ran a picture of Douglas during the entire race. When Newsweek's Ralph de Toledano, a Nixon friend from Washington, showed up to follow the candidate around, he pitched in to assist campaign staffers in writing another fiery denunciation of Douglas. All of this is told with a minimum of embellishment by Mitchell. Here and there one may disagree with his interpretation of events and wish that he had reached some profound conclusion from his impressive research. Nonetheless, he provides compelling evidence to reinforce what Garry Wills once described as Nixon's "diligently acquired meanness."

It was more than meanness, however. The skullduggery also included not-so-subtle appeals to anti-Semitism strains, with Nixon sometimes referring to his opponent not as Helen Douglas, her longtime stage name, but as Helen Hesselberg, her married Jewish name.

The Senate victory was the springboard that carried Nixon to the mountaintop of American politics. But the demagoguery and dirty tricks that served him so well in California ultimately proved his undoing. As the Watergate scandal later proved, even the roughest of warriors can occasionally overplay their hand.

Paul Duke moderated PBS' "Washington Week in Review" for 20 years. He has worked as a reporter at the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and NBC.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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