Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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CA Senate Primary: Lincoln-Douglas or Nixon-Douglas?

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California’s Republican U.S. Senate primary deserves credit.

Most candidates seeking office in the Golden State try to take voters back to the fabled mid-1960s — free college tuition, new freeways, flowing water. The GOP primary has done that one better: taking us further back to 1950, and memories of an earlier California Senate contest.

A quick history lesson:

The contestants in the fall of 1950 were Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. Both were incumbent congressmen (Douglas, House Class of ’44; Nixon, House Class of ’46), vying for higher office in what had just become the nation’s second most populous state.

But that’s about all they had in common.

Nixon was younger (37), more intense, and driven in no small part by burning ambition and burning memories of a tough, conservative Quaker upbringing in Yorba Linda.

Douglas, a 49-year-old former Broadway actress, was the more celebrated of the two candidates (Pageant Magazine rated her the nation’s 12th most influential woman). And she was glamorous. Married to actor Melvyn Douglas, she campaigned around California in a helicopter (an idea given to her by Lyndon Johnson, who choppered around Texas in his 1948 Senate race) dubbed the “Helencopter”.

The numbers that year trended in Douglas’ favor (California voter registration, 60 years ago, was roughly 58% Democratic and 37% Republican). But the political climate didn’t. 1950 was a midterm election featuring an unpopular Democratic president (Harry Truman) and a country whipsawed by a hot war in Korea and a cold war with the Soviets.

Not a good fit for a New Deal Democrat like Douglas — the New Deal being very much on display in the form of the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Jimmy Roosevelt (Franklin and Eleanor’s eldest son).  In the end, Nixon trounced Douglas, earning 59% of the vote and carrying 53 of California’s 58 counties.

How Nixon did it has long been the stuff of political legend — and analogous to what’s going on in California here and now.

Democrats seeking office in 1950 had to cope with the label “soft of communism”. Sometimes, even Democrats attacked each other on this very topic. For example, in that year’s May Senate primary in Florida, Democrat George Smathers took down fellow Democrat Claude Pepper by dubbing his foe “Red Pepper” and handing out red-covered brochures (The Red Record of Senate Clauder Pepper).

In California, the elbows were just as sharp.

Douglas sought to defuse the issue by launching a pre-emptive attack on Nixon before the fall campaign kicked into high gear, claiming he had voted to deny aid to Korea and cut European aid in half.

Realizing foreign policy was the issue, Nixon quickly turned the tables.

His campaign handed out pink flyers — the “Pink Sheet” — linking Douglas to New York Rep. Vito Marcantonio, an American Labor Party member deemed a “fellow traveler” because he opposed restrictions on the Communist Party.

In a radio address, Nixon accused Douglas of being “a member of a small clique which joins the notorious communist party-liner Vito Marcantonio of New York, in voting time after time against measures that are for the security of this country.”

But here’s what the historians have overlooked over the years.

Guilt by association was a winning tactic against Douglas — in part, because of damage already done to her in the primary by a fellow Democrat: Los Angeles Daily News editor and publisher Manchester Boddy.

It was Boddy who first linked Douglas to Marcantonio (just as Al Gore, and not Republican activists, first tied Willie Horton to Michael Dukakis).

It was Boddy who said Douglas was pink “right down to her underwear”.

And it was Boddy who gave the Democrat the nickname that stuck: “the pink lady”.

S0 what does this have to do current events?

In the Republican Senate primary, frontrunner Tom Campbell, like Helen Douglas, is plagued by a matter of guilt by association — for his ties to a former college professor who aided the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  And Campbell has been accused of being anti-Israel, based on his congressional voting record, with rival Carly Fiorina’s campaign allegedy calling Campbell an anti-Semite, to boot.

Compared to 1950, it’s gender reversal, what with the female candidate doing the attacking this time. And it presents at least two problems for Campbell.

In this day and age, being accused of anti-Israeli, pro-Arabist sentiments is the new “pink” in American politics — “soft on terror” replacing “soft on communism” as this generation’s toxic label.

The second problem: Campbell is deliberate and professorial, trying to counter accusations in a faster-moving world of talk radio, the blogosphere and a never-sleeping news cycle. Listening to last Friday’s debate, and Campbell trying to turn the corner on this controversy, it’s clear that it’s easier to play offense rather than defense — lob accusations rather then fend them off.

Helen Douglas both succeeded and failed at undoing guilt by association in 1950. She survived her party’s primary, but couldn’t win come November.

We’ll find out soon enough if Tom Campbell’s fate is any different.


Written by Bill Whalen

March 8, 2010 at 6:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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