As Hillary Clinton continues her “excuse” tour regarding her decisive loss to Trump, ranging from the now well-worn Russian collusion thesis to weak support from Obama during the campaign to an ineffective and shattered DNC, many Democrats have sought to acquaint her with the painful reality that she was simply a bad candidate.
Such frankness, however, has not attached itself to a cherished liberal history lesson regarding an eerily similar 1950 California Senate race between Republican Congressman Richard Nixon and Democratic Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas. For liberals then and now, Nixon’s victory was achieved by his métier of red-baiting and character assassination, with a heavy dose of misogyny thrown into the mix.
To encapsulate all of Nixon’s admittedly thuggish attacks on Gahagan, liberals have cited his infamous mixture of anti-feminism with anti-communism, when he bellowed about Gahagan’s politics, that “she is pink right down to her underwear” (a statement the Nixon campaign borrowed verbatim from Gahagan’s Democratic primary opponent, Sheldon Boddy).
Although Nixon’s dodgy at best character, ruthlessly dishonest at worst, and the white-hot political climate of 1950, probably the most intense expression of domestic and apocalyptic anti-communism during the Cold War, owing to a series of hysteria-causing events (the fall of China to communists; the Soviet acquisition of the Atomic Bomb; the atomic spy trials of the Rosenbergs; and the Korean War) played a considerable role in Gahagan’s defeat, the politically incorrect truth was that she was a terrible candidate.
For Douglas was the worst kind of liberal: sanctimonious, over-emotional, Manichean, and morally vain. Emulating Republican President George W. Bush’s public confusion over a scanner in a store check-out, Douglas’ attempt at populism by riding streetcars was bungled when she had to ask which end to board.
She was often was patronizing toward minorities, as when she told a black church audience that “I just love the Negro people,” and insulted a considerable number of African-American Republicans in the 1940s by writing that if she were a “Negro” she would join “liberals of all faiths, all shades.”
As with a tactic she criticized Republicans for, she often wrapped herself in the religious flag, once telling Congressional opponents of a fair-employment bill that they needed to “get on the side of God.”
Moreover, she was a poor Congresswoman, more agitator than lawmaker, who could not get any of her legislative proposals passed. Like Bill Clinton, she was long-winded and self-promoting in her speeches which narcotized audiences. She would go onto publicly praise Democratic Senator Claude Pepper, a fervent supporter of Josef Stalin, who as late as 1948 lauded the dictator’s regime as giving minorities “more freedom, recognition and respect” than anywhere else in the world.
Rarely mentioned in liberal retrospectives was that Gahagan was willing during the Senate campaign to get into the gutter with Nixon on red-baiting. Indeed, it was she who red-baited first, attacking Nixon as “the Congressman the Kremlin loves” based on the Republican’s “refusal” to support an economic aid package to South Korea.
Characterizing Nixon as representing the “failure of so many to understand the communist threat in the Far East,“ Gahagan linked Nixon’s opposition to the South Korean aid package as assuring North Korea’s invasion of the South.
As with Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy, her accusation was easily invalidated. Nixon’s initial refusal to support the aid package was because the bill did not also supply economic and military funding to the exiled Chiang Kai-shek government in Taiwan. When this aid was included, Nixon promptly supported the bill.
She applied this red-baiting tactic to the Republican Party as a whole, accusing those in the GOP who did not support liberal domestic programs as acting like the kind of saboteurs of “our national strength that the Communists hope to enlist.”
Such sabotage, Gahagan stated, made these Republicans worthy of joining “the Order of Stalin.”
But these accusations were self-destructive, as they aided the Nixon campaign’s strategy of making the communist issue front and center. For even his enemies such as Eleanor Roosevelt conceded that Nixon was an extremely effective and convincing speaker on the communist issue, and warned Gahagan to stay away from the issue; advice she ultimately did not heed.
Gahagan was extremely vulnerable on this issue. Three years before the campaign, in 1947, Douglas was one of the few who voted against the Truman Doctrine and its objective of aiding countries threatened by the Soviets. It must be said, however, that beneath all the sanctimony and gutter politics was a figure of considerable courage and a voice of reason in a hysterical time.
Along with her husband, actor Melvyn Douglas, she was very much a premature anti-fascist (both founded the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936) and also a premature anti-Stalinist, who waged a valiant and doomed campaign against communist influence in the League, especially regarding members’ defense of the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact in 1939—a defense that both resigned over.
A decade later, Gahagan emulated her husband (much more politically astute than her; he correctly predicted that members of the Hollywood Communist Party would not defect over the Hitler-Stalin military partnership; which later caused him to warn liberals not to support the civil rights of Stalinists) by refusing to support the frankly pro-Soviet presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, FDR’s Vice President in 1940, and instead threw her weight behind Harry’s Truman’s in 1948; an action that several of her fellow New Dealers condemned.
When ten movie industry figures in 1947 were subpoenaed to appear before Congress and answer questions about their political affiliations, Gahagan took the increasingly unpopular stance (all of the Hollywood Ten had been or currently were Communists and accordingly, refused to answer questions directly) of condemning the Congressional hearings and its verdict.
While Nixon went with the Congressional majority by supporting the Contempt of Congress charge lodged against the Ten, Gahagan was one of only seventeen who cast a nay vote. She tried to make a crucial distinction between condemning the hearings and its assault on individual rights without defending the obvious Communist politics of the Ten.
She also took the increasingly unpopular stance—in light of New Dealers like Alger Hiss outed as Soviet spies—of defending liberalism from charges that it was strongly linked to Communism, and correctly gauged that such charges were harmful to the American government.
Against lawmaker Jack Tenney, who, as head of the California State Un-American Activities Committee, charged Hollywood liberals as Communists, Gahagan accused Tenney of “undermining our form of government when he attempts to make people believe that liberal and Communist are synonymous.”
But the hysterical tide, as well as her own unattractive aspects, went against her, and she was soundly defeated by Nixon, who garnered 59 percent of the vote. To her credit, however, she never engaged in martyrdom as did Hillary Clinton, and had a clear-eyed view that Nixon’s red-baiting accusations were superfluous as she was bound to lose anyway.