The contender : Richard Nixon : the Congress years, 1946-1952 /
Irwin F. Gellman.
New York : Free Press, 1999.
xi, 590 p. : ill.
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New York : Free Press, 1999.
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Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


Nixon and His Detractors -- Whom Should We Believe?

The fundamental issue that plagued Richard Nixon throughout his political career concerned his character. In the midst of the Watergate scandal, during a question and answer session on November 17, 1973, in response to a question about his income tax filings, he insisted that he was not a crook. From the polling data taken at that time, however, Americans in overwhelming numbers rejected his assertion. They had been conditioned for almost a quarter of a century to think that he was dishonest. To legions of Nixon haters, it was a well-earned reputation.

The events that forced Nixon's presidential resignation, however, cannot be traced back to his congressional ascendancy. Indeed, as we have seen, every major charge brought against him during his congressional years are not sustained by facts. His political rise demonstrates that while he was not perfect, he was a dedicated, efficient public servant. The time has come to let his record, for good and ill, speak for itself.


Richard Nixon entered politics not from a sense of mission to public service but because of an accident of timing. In the fall of 1945, he was contemplating what to do after his naval discharge. Herman Perry, disappointed by the quality of prospective Republican applicants to challenge Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, called upon Nixon to run for the House. He seized the opportunity, accepted this political calling, and resolved his employment dilemma for the next fourteen years.

During that first race against Voorhis, Nixon worked much harder than his opponent and upset him by a solid margin. Six years after the election, an editorial in the Madera News-Tribune recounted why Nixon was victorious. He spoke to the issues of the day. "He rang doorbells, he talked on street corners and in auditoriums, he kissed babies, patted old ladies on the cheek, and otherwise made himself known wherever and whenever two people would stop and listen to him. He made friends with the press and radio, he went out of his way to be congenial and likeable." He campaigned for almost ten months; Voorhis allocated just two months. Besides staying in the capital, Voorhis made other blunders. The incumbent actually called upon his challenger to debate the issues. By doing so, Voorhis raised Nixon to the incumbent's level, allowed the challenger to appear on the same platform, provided him with the means to attack the congressman's vulnerabilities, gave Nixon's followers a chance to claim victory during the debates, and accelerated Nixon's momentum.

During his reelection campaign, Nixon not only won the Republican primary but also defeated political novice Stephen Zetterberg on the Democratic ballot. Now with two years of experience, Nixon had built a record, assembled a competent campaign committee, and recognized the importance of public relations. The Democratic Party hoped that Voorhis would run again for his House seat. His refusal left a void, and Zetterberg was chosen at the last moment to become a sacrificial political lamb for a party that lacked an attractive candidate. Under such adverse conditions of the Democrats' own making, they suffered a humiliating defeat.

After three years in the House, Nixon looked forward to the possibility of running for a Senate seat. Because the Democratic incumbent, Senator Sheridan Downey, was deemed unbeatable, none of the most prominent Republicans stepped up to challenge him. Nixon, on the other hand, assumed the risk and was fortunate when Downey's health forced him to retire.

With the incumbent eliminated, Nixon's victory had as much to do with Helen Gahagan Douglas's weaknesses as with his own strengths. Her bruising primary fight first against Downey and then against his surrogate Manchester Boddy caused an enormous breach within the Democratic Party. Douglas entered the fall election without the support of a substantial number of moderate and conservative Democrats, who deserted their party to join the opposition.

At this crucial moment, anticommunism, Nixon's leading issue and Douglas's most glaring vulnerability, was gaining widespread popularity. Yet her first salvo after Labor Day in the fall campaign attacked Nixon's voting record on Korea, as if trying to beat him on his own turf. After Douglas made this disastrous decision, Nixon set the tone for the campaign by contrasting his and her judgments on matters pertaining to domestic security and Russian expansionism. The "pink sheet" became the focus of charges and countercharges, but it was mild by comparison to later (or, for that matter, earlier) standards of negative campaigning. Even without the pink sheet, anticommunism was bound to be the key issue in the race, and from the start, Douglas's chances were at best remote.

Rarely do Nixon's biographers concede that his challengers lacked managerial, tactical, and ideological skills. Instead, Voorhis and Douglas are often described as virtuous. Some writers concede that Douglas had various handicaps, but Nixon's attack politics are featured far more than hers.

The myth of Nixon as a liar is underscored by selective attention to his activities in the House and Senate. As we have seen, a fun and fair version of his record shows a hardworking, promising young star. He became a defender of GOP moderation in domestic issues and a champion of internationalism in foreign affairs. He fought for the Taft-Hartley Act, and after its passage, argued for amendments to correct its ambiguities. He followed most of the Republican initiatives in the 80th Congress and agreed with his colleagues as they shrank back into the minority during the next one. Whatever problems Nixon had with Harry Truman in domestic matters, they did not interfere with support for a bipartisan foreign policy. Named to the Herter mission, he saw firsthand the abysmal postwar conditions in Europe and came away from that journey a firm convert to the objectives expressed in the burgeoning Marshall Plan.

Nixon's sharpest disagreement with the White House arose from his HUAC role. Once the new congressman was convinced that federal officials were guilty of espionage and that the administration was unwilling to halt subversion, he fought doggedly to present his case, find those who had compromised American security, and publicly expose them. When Professor Robert Carr, in his authoritative treatise on HUAC, evaluated Nixon's performance, he concluded that the congressman had acted in the most responsible and moderate manner of any of those on the controversial committee.

Nixon's HUAC service and especially the Hiss hearings have at tracted the most attention. What commentators often obscure is the fact that he was far from an extremist. More than fourteen years after entering Congress, Nixon recalled his disgust with some HUAC colleagues and how he "used to boil inwardly with rage when John Rankin, of Mississippi, or one of his associates would take the Floor of the House of Representatives to spout venom against fellow-Americans because they were of the Negro race, or the Jewish faith, or perhaps Italian extraction." To Nixon, such racist slurs were "dangerous," and he wondered "whether those who professed to patriotism realized how effectively they were furthering the Communist cause when they excited bitterness among Americans by aggravating natural difference between people like those of race and religion."

Nixon's signature in the struggle against communism came accidentally, with the eruption of the Chambers-Hiss volcano, demonstrating that Hiss had committed perjury, and leading to major coverage on the front pages of almost every American newspaper. From the hot August days when Chambers and Hiss confronted each other at a televised HUAC hearing, both the former spy and his antagonist were intertwined with Nixon. Some have charged that Nixon had advance knowledge of Hiss's guilt, but the evidence shows the opposite.

To examine Nixon from his contemporaries' viewpoint is paramount not from the hindsight of our knowledge of Watergate. Anticommunism was as American as apple pie in the late 1940s. From his first term, Nixon preached to an enormous national congregation who passionately considered the Red peril worthy of a life and death struggle. Nixon was a true believer. Truman's characterization of HUAC's hearings as a "red herring" not only infuriated him but also led to a stalemate in which the president refused to cooperate with the GOP and like-minded Democrats who honestly felt that Soviet penetration of American institutions was destroying the fabric of American life. This only enhanced the stature of the cause. Nixon soon turned to his oratorical skills to become a prominent GOP critic of the administration's failings on Korea, communism, and corruption.

Nixon's meteoric rise to national prominence, his principled anticommunism that stood out so clearly in contrast to Joe McCarthy's and HUAC members', his systematic and well-organized campaigns, all made him an attractive choice for Dwight Eisenhower's advisers. The general's convention lieutenants stumbled through an anticlimactic and haphazard process of choosing a running mate. Yet Nixon quickly emerged as the unanimous choice for the second spot. He was a young moderate from the West who had become a national celebrity. As he stood on the rostrum, raising Eisenhower's wrist to the rafters with the broadest smile imaginable, Nixon appeared to be the epitome of the Horatio Alger myth: a child from a relatively poor, rural setting, who had emerged from obscurity to run for the second highest elected office in America.

Nixon was hardly flawless. Sometimes he acted precipitously and imprudently. During the controversy brought on by Laurence Duggan's mysterious death, he moved too impulsively and was linked to Congressman Karl Mundt, who blurted out the tasteless phrase that he would release the names of the other Reds associated with Duggan when they too jumped out of windows. Nixon also should have never given Chotiner, and Holt, HUAC's Tenney file. As a lawyer, Nixon understood the implications of releasing confidential data to those who had no right to see it, and he knew that its only possible use would be unfair and underhanded. Finally, the senator sometimes did not fully consider the ramifications of his actions. After sending out a questionnaire to his constituents soliciting their opinions about the best presidential contender in 1952, some of Warren's followers viciously attacked Nixon for his insensitivity in not supporting their favorite son. Recognizing this action as politically unwise, Nixon never released the results and publicly reaffirmed his support for the governor.

These multifaceted character traits should have been the stuff that legends spring from. Yet something went awry. Nixon's congressional career has become the basis of myth that both masks and mingles with reality. Errors of fact have accumulated, culminating in misguided interpretations and the persistence of the derogatory Nixon legend. How did this happen?


Nixon's reputation as a congenital liar has been most actively perpetuated by a core of Nixon haters. The standard line began with Ernest Brashear's "Who Is Richard Nixon?" in the New Republic on September 1, 1952, and continuing the following week. Brashear identified himself as the labor editor for the Los Angeles Daily News, omitting to mention that he had run and lost as a Democratic candidate for the California state assembly during 1950. He was firmly on the left. Though later, reputable historians have dismissed him out of hand, his charges have nonetheless persisted.

Brashear hurled preposterous charges that cemented the foundation of Richard Nixon's demonizing. Commencing with the genesis of his decision to enter politics in late 1945, the reporter noted that Herman Perry recruited Nixon. Brashear promoted Perry from a local bank branch manager to a wealthy Bank of America "financier." Instead of "the charming fairy tale" of the Candidate and Fact Finding Committee soliciting a naive naval officer and his running under the guidance of an amateurish campaign committee, Brashear described Nixon's supporters as a clandestine organization dominated by professional politicians, monopolies, and big business. Nixon, from Brashear's vantage, almost immediately attacked Voorhis as a Red who served the CIO-PAC. For the first time in a national publication, a reporter declared that Nixon had employed anonymous telephone callers to announce that Voorhis was a Communist and then hung up. Nixon won only as a result of such underhanded practices.

Brashear described Nixon's demolition of Helen Gahagan Douglas as "one of the best-financed, well-publicized and most underhanded campaigns in California's history." She lost, he claimed, because Nixon spent between $1 million and $2 million on newspapers, billboards, radio, television, and other media promotions. His money was supposed to have come primarily from "wealthy owners of California's oil, private utilities and corporation farms." With virtually unlimited funding, his campaign staff cleverly linked Douglas to Vito Marcantonio. "The Pink Sheet," Brashear proclaimed, "was a big and masterful lie, convincingly done." Worse, Joe McCarthy "spoke throughout the state for him as part of Nixon's double-level campaign." Each of the above accusations, as we have seen, has no basis in reality. Yet they live on.

Other Nixon haters have followed in Brashear's footsteps. Fawn Brodie based an entire book on the assumption that Nixon was never to be trusted. Writing in the early 1980s, she found Nixon guilty of congenital lying: the lynchpin that predetermined why he was so reprehensible. Her book became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and some writers (fortunately not many) still refer to it as a reputable source.

Frank Mankiewicz, former presidential campaign manager for George McGovern, cavalierly raised the charge of criminal fraud in each of Nixon's congressional campaigns, thereby effectively indicting, trying, and sentencing Nixon. In fact, Mankiewicz made his allegations without identifying any significant documentation to defend such claims. His book is so blatantly slanted that it is rarely cited, but unsuspecting readers still pull it from library shelves.

None of these Nixon haters would matter, and none would be particularly remarkable among the typical morass of partisan sniping, if their assumptions and charges had not made it into the mainstream. Unfortunately for the real record, the theme of Nixon as untrustworthy, along with many specific allegations of Red-baiting, secret financing, back-channel communication with the FBI, et al., live on in otherwise scholarly writings. Even Stephen E. Ambrose's first volume on Nixon, which dismisses Brashear, scoffs at claims of secret moneys, and describes Nixon's California supporters fairly, includes a detailed section on his vice-presidential selection that depends almost exclusively on journalistic accounts, some of which perpetuate the myths. Ambrose portrays a Nixon who manipulated his way toward the nomination, reasoning that Nixon worked for Eisenhower within the California delegation by weakening Warren's hold on its members. He states that Nixon controlled almost a third of the delegation though that figure did not in fact reach 10 percent. The facts of the matter were straightforward: Warren had absolute control over how the delegation would vote; Nixon had no ability to change that. The records of the actual decision meeting of Eisenhower's advisers show nothing predestined in Nixon's choice as vice president.

Still, Ambrose's Nixon represented a highpoint of objectivity, after which the "congenital liar" made a comeback. The most often cited biographer for Nixon's congressional period, Roger Morris, a finalist in the National Book Award for his Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, paints a sinister portrait. Certain Morris conclusions are contradicted by the record, and his interpretations invariably tend toward the dark side.

In one seemingly trivial example, Morris notes that during the 1948 congressional primary election campaign, Nixon sent out postcards from "Democrats for Nixon, J.R. Blue, Chairman." Morris states that "there were questions about whether Mr. Blue was a Democrat or even existed." In fact, J.R. Blue, whose correct name was J.B. Blue, Jr., and who was indeed a Democrat, wrote and received scores of letters to and from Nixon and his campaign staff.

A far less trivial example concerns the money said to have been spent on Nixon's campaigns, beginning with the very first one. Brashear claimed, without any proof other than what seemed "reasonable" to him, that Nixon had spent at least $175,000 on billboards. Nixon campaign records show this to be preposterous; with the exclusion of eleven billboards bought by the local Long Beach committee, the statewide organization purchased 774 billboards for a total charge of $26,339.33, or approximately 13 percent of the budget, just about $150,000 less than Brashear's projection.

For the Senate campaign, Brashear had estimated that Nixon forces spent between $1 million and $2 million. Morris inflates these numbers, concluding that Nixon spent even more lavishly throughout his campaigns. Referring to the 1950 race against Helen Gahagan Douglas, Morris pronounces that Nixon's "further rise had been richly financed, mostly in secret." He offers no proof to back these charges. An even more recent author, Greg Mitchell, alleges in Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady that Morris had underestimated Nixon's vast reserves of cash. Again, no substantiated proof is offered.

In an era before television (and also before stricter Federal Election Commission requirements), the budgets for Nixon's first three contests were minuscule. Candidates budgeted their funds for billboards, mailings, newspaper advertisements, and some radio spots. Outside groups possibly could have expended large sums on pro-Nixon billboards without ever leaving any official receipts in archives; but in this case, the Nixon archives demonstrate that almost all major expenditures were done by the campaign and accounted for.

For Morris's and Mitchell's numbers to be correct, third-party money would have had to blanket the state in an unprecedented explosion. Media reports from the time mention no such blitz. Though the accusation of "secret" money can never be disproved, because it is logically impossible to prove the negative, accounting sheets are persuasive. No scrap of paper in the Nixon archive refers to a dime of outside money, nor did Nixon even need it for his victories. The time has come to bury this myth.

Prejudicial reminisces, half-truths, journalist biases, and a small sampling of documents from various archives remain the shaky foundation of Richard Nixon's historiography during his congressional career. Rave reviews greeted Morris's book, but none of the major reviewers had examined the writer's sources or the Nixon manuscripts.

Some of the Nixon myths at first glance appears to have stronger foundations. To prove that Nixon had been tipped off in advance about Alger Hiss's serving in the Russian spy network, Garry Wills in his Nixon Agonistes interviewed Father John Cronin in the late 1960s, resurrecting the allegation that even though Nixon denied having had any knowledge of Hiss or his espionage before his HUAC appearance, he in fact knew all about both. Cronin had made such a claim in the late 1950s, but Wills's description revitalized it a decade after the HUAC hearings.

Allen Weinstein during the mid-1970s magnified Wills's theme and based on his own interview with Cronin concluded (in an Esquire article, followed by his book Perjury) that, indeed, Nixon had not divulged the information he had earlier received concerning Hiss. Only in the late 1980s did presidential historian Herbert Parmet challenge the mainstream view. In an interview with Parmet, Cronin recanted, conceding that Nixon's version was accurate.

None of the other evidence from the hearings and Nixon's papers support Cronin's now recanted accusation. Chambers's gradual, tortuous admissions hardly seemed orchestrated. Nixon's interrogations of Hiss did not give any indication that the congressman had privileged, advanced information that Hiss was a spy. Even if Cronin's accusations were true, what relevance might they have held for a Nixon who treated Hiss carefully throughout the hearings? The power of the Cronin myth stemmed not from its plausibility, but its underlying premise: Nixon was deceitful. The truth, including the curious fact that J. Edgar Hoover used an unofficial source on the HUAC staff to report on the activities of Nixon, whom the director distrusted, should be of much greater interest.

The anti-Nixon myths have taken deep hold on our culture. On November 8, 1998, CNN aired its much-discussed multipart documentary, Cold War, in which Nixon was summarily dismissed as a "Red-baiter." That was the extent of the charge. Nothing more was needed. Everyone knew what that meant.

Similarly, Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, in her Personal History, awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and a national bestseller, after acknowledging her fondness for the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, declared that she and many of her "friends were deeply concerned about his [Nixon's] red baiting victorious early campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas and about his pronounced right-wing proclivities and seeming sympathy for McCarthy."

Nixon's politics unquestionably were to the right of center. But Nixon's "seeming sympathy for McCarthy" is less a factual depiction than a portrayal based on the hackneyed charge of Nixon out-McCarthying McCarthy. Such unexamined claims and assumptions appeal only to the most fundamental emotions of the faithful from either end of the political spectrum. What really transpired almost seems irrelevant and inconsequential to those shouting at each other, resolving little and surrendering nothing.


Now that an enormous amount of Nixon material has been released concerning his congressional career, who was Richard Nixon? As a rising star, was he fundamentally a Red-baiter and tool of big business? He clearly was neither. Was he a saint, as some of his staunchest defenders assert? Of course not. But he was remarkable among his congressional peers, a success story in a troubled era, one who steered a sensible anti-Communist course against the excess of McCarthy and other extreme right-wingers. Those in the smoke-filled room who selected him above all others for the vice-presidential nomination validated his meteoric rise.

In Washington, D.C., as one drives down from Capitol Hill along the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the National Archives (principal repository of government documents), an inscription looms on the pedestal beneath a female statue symbolizing the future: What Is Past Is Prologue. This famous line from Shakespeare's Tempest is meaningful only if what is past is accurately portrayed. Within the massive archives' walls does indeed lie the truth. The enormous mountain of Nixon material is staggering. The truth is there, if only we will permit ourselves to see it objectively."

Copyright © 1999 Irwin Gellman. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-06-28:
A history professor at Chapman College in Orange, Calif., Gellman, author of a revisionist biography of FDR (Secret Affairs), now turns to Nixon. Always interesting, sometimes downright compelling, this is revisionist biography with a capital R, as Gellman criticizes previous biographers from all parts of the political spectrum. Gellman takes special aim at Roger Morris, whose 1990 biography concentrating on Nixon's congressional years (Richard Milhous Nixon) topped 1000 pages. Some of Gellman's debunking comes in the text, some in the endnotes, most in a section titled "Nixon and His Detractors: Whom Should We Believe?" Those who have read the Morris biography will perhaps find themselves returning to it. Those who have not might need to do so to fully evaluate Gellman's much more charitable interpretations of Nixon's character and motives. Gellman's use of primary documents is impressive: there is no question that he has turned up some new evidence. Unlike Morris, who tends to judge Nixon as opportunistic at best, dishonest at worst, Gellman views the president-to-be as a skilled, often warm congressman who spoke and voted his conscience. Gellman concedes that Nixon was no saint, "but neither was he an outrageous Red-baiter, nor a crooked fund-raiser, nor a smarmy politician who smeared his opponents." Because Gellman's revisionism is the key to the book, it will be of special interest to professional historians. The writing is accessible, though, to anybody interested in post-WWII American history. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2000-03:
The man, the politician who has fascinated, confused, angered, and maddened several generations of Americans, is back. This thoroughly researched volume looks at Richard Nixon's two campaigns for the House of Representatives (1946, 1948) and his race for the US Senate in 1950, and concludes with his nomination for the second spot on the Republican ticket in 1952. Nixonphiles as well as Nixonphobes will find much to discuss (or cuss). This volume benefits from the fact that Gellman had access to more heretofore unavailable historical records than anyone who has researched this period of Nixon's life. At times the author seems bent on reconstructing Nixon's earliest political campaigns, which gave birth to his reputation as "tricky Dick" Nixon. Nixonphobes will likely conclude that the reconstruction falls a few boards short. Nixonphiles will chorus "amen" to the statement that at last "the real story" of Dick Nixon is coming out. Most curious is the fact that Gellman ends with the nomination of Nixon as vice president, revealing nothing from the 1952 campaign (the slush fund charges, the Checkers' speech, etc.). It is unclear why the recounting of Nixon's career stops at that point. As ever, books on Nixon are an interesting read. This volume is no exception. General readers and undergraduate students. W. K. Hall; Bradley University
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, June 1999
Publishers Weekly, June 1999
Booklist, August 1999
New York Times Book Review, August 1999
Wall Street Journal, August 1999
Chicago Tribune, September 1999
New York Times Book Review, September 1999
Choice, March 2000
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Table of Contents
Prefacep. 1
The Prerequisites for a Congressional Candidatep. 5
Nixon's First Primaryp. 25
Nixon Versus Voorhisp. 61
Learning the Congressional Routinep. 89
Nixon and HUACp. 107
The Herter Committeep. 120
Sharpening Foreign and Domestic Prioritiesp. 144
Running for Reelectionp. 167
Moving Onto the National Stagep. 181
Nixon: Chambers Versus Hissp. 196
The Pumpkin, Father Cronin, the FBI, and Dugganp. 225
Nixon, Communism, and the Truman Triumphp. 253
Stepping Sideways to Move Upp. 264
The 1950 Primaryp. 289
Douglas Versus Nixon: The Issuesp. 306
Fifty-one Days in the Fall: Nixon Versus Douglas - Reality and Legendp. 319
Communism and Koreap. 344
Corruption in the Highest Placesp. 372
"Electability" and Other Issuesp. 391
The 1952 Conventionp. 422
Epilogue: Nixon and His Detractors - Whom Should We Believe?p. 451
Notesp. 461
Bibliographyp. 541
Glossary of Charactersp. 553
Indexp. 559
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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