Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady

By Greg Mitchell

There are times when no amount of news analysis is as helpful in understanding our world as an awareness of history. It is history’s gift of perspective that allows us to see the real significance of events, and lets us look at each morning’s headline crisis with a more objective eye.

A fresh historical perspective on American politics is of particular interest now. At a time when a revisionist history of JFK (The Dark Side of Camelot) is topping the best-seller lists, and stories of White House sex scandals with whispers of impeachment dominate news broadcasts, it is worth stepping back to the golden days of yesteryear, when “going negative” wasn’t just a buzz word, and character issues really meant something.

Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady is a history lover’s delight: A fast-paced and thoroughly-researched account of the 1950 senate race between Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas. The main focus is on the red scare and what has since become known as gender politics, but in the background is the larger story of America itself at mid-century.

In his later years, Nixon’s reputation was somewhat rehabilitated as he became a kind of elder statesman on foreign affairs. But in these pages we see him in all his glory – a young congressman driven to succeed by any means necessary, including a wide range of “dirty tricks.”

That Nixon was ambitious is fine – so was Lincoln – but Nixon’s ambition was different in that it was so ruthless in operation and empty of purpose. Years after her defeat, Douglas commented on how Nixon seemed to have no “strong convictions about anything except success.” This will to power was fuelled by feelings of resentment against a sinister host of ill-defined “others” (communists, Jews, intellectuals, women). His paranoia would bear bitter fruit in the bunker of the White House.

To his credit, Mitchell neither demonizes Nixon nor idealizes Douglas. In 1950 Trick Dick may have merely been an opportunist, while Douglas was an at best naive campaigner, with something of the dilettante’s attitude toward politics and a surprisingly poor sense of political theatre.

In hindsight, it seems clear she never had a chance. But her story has a broader significance. America seemed to stand at a moral crossroads in 1950, a time when the polarities that came to dominate the second half of the century were only just giving birth to dogmatic ideological camps. This doesn’t mean it was a golden age, but only that the exercise of self-interest had a less scripted air (Ronald Reagan, for example, was an early supporter of Douglas, while JFK gave money to Nixon’s campaign.) More recent political dogfights have been better managed, while at the same time involving choices that are far less distinct.

Review first published February 28, 1998.


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