In March 1952, then-Senator Richard Nixon gave one of his secret House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) files to a friend.
The file concerned a man named Jack Tenney, supposedly a former communist sympathizer who was then campaigning for Congress. Nixon's friend, now in receipt of a classified file, was Tenney's congressional opponent.
To anyone familiar with Richard Milhous Nixon, this act of arrogant situational ethics and brazen contempt for congressional law is completely in character. But to his apologists (led by John Taylor, executive director of the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda), explaining Nixon in something other than dark terms has been a dilemma since Nixon's shameful resignation 25 years ago this month.
For the most part, efforts to resuscitate the Nixon reputation have centered on claiming that Nixon's actions, far from criminal, were legitimate responses to the Cold War. That argument never went very far, but the sudden sympathy elicited by Nixon's death in 1994 greatly helped matters, as if the fact that he was mortal helped crystallize the "elder statesman" image he desperately nurtured in his post-presidential years.
Taking a different tack is Chapman University professor Irwin F. Gellman. Using hitherto unseen Nixon Library archives, Gellman's new book, The Contender, attempts to show that Nixon in Congress (from 1946 through 1952) was in fact a nice guy, full of "innocence and energy," "the victor against great odds in contest after contest."
Thus Gellman explains the HUAC file incident as a "major lapse in judgment"—an aberration in an otherwise admirable political career. That Gellman acknowledges the incident at all is laudable, although he spends a mere half-page exploring it. (By contrast, he spends three full pages detailing Truman administration graft.) For the most part, Gellman's book—far from the great revision its marketers claim—is merely Nixon's official history of himself, culled exclusively from Nixon's own files, the National Archives and sympathetic media accounts. Anything found within that sphere, Gellman considers fact; all that is outside, including investigative-news pieces scorned by the former president, are "myths."
Despite the book's formidable 590 pages and obviously exhaustive research, it is remarkable chiefly for its lack of new insight or analysis. Gellman's characterizations read like job rsums. But Gellman has no trouble showing off his research. For instance, after locating a Queen Mary pamphlet in Nixon's files from his 1947 trip to Europe, Gellman treats us to nine lines on the ship's dimensions and specifications. Not content with other historians dispensing with Nixon's infamous Alger Hiss investigation in a dozen pages, Gellman provides a mind-numbing, day-by-day account that drags on for 67 pages. And for the first time, thanks to Gellman, we now know that in 1951, Nixon received $125.65 in campaign reimbursements for office expenses.
Even worse, Contender lacks even minimal historical context. Sometimes the effect is humorous. After the first postwar elections in Italy that proved favorable to U.S. interests, Gellman quotes Nixon as saying the elections provided "final and convincing proof to the oft-repeated contention of democratic forces that the only way communism can come to power is by conspiratorial seizure." What Gellman doesn't mention is that the CIA—undoubtedly without Nixon's knowledge—spent $30 million in 1948 bribing Italian politicians and stuffing Italian ballot boxes.
At other times, Gellman merely repeats Nixon's lines—including catch phrases like "Reds," "Red peril" and "Red plot"—without explanation. He mentions that Nixon cursed the "liberal media" but fails to show how that could be, given repeated Nixon endorsements from the big LA dailies and virtually every major local paper in Nixon's congressional district. And at one curious point, Gellman quotes Nixon on Jan. 6, 1951, calling for American bombers to attack China, then quotes him the next day saying the U.S. should pull out of Korea. Gellman provides no explanation for the about-face.
For a book that supposedly shows a kinder, gentler Nixon, it's odd that Gellman omits the single incident that exemplifies the "good" Nixon:his unsolicited 1952 appearance before the California Senate defending former atomic-bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer against baseless charges of communist sympathy.
In short, this is a book that hasn't got the muscle to revise history. Gellman criticizes accusations (by historian Roger Morris, among others) that Nixon's campaigns gorged on "big money" given in secret by oil interests but fails to say exactly how much money Nixon took from the oil men or why he continually voted their way on critical Tidelands development issues. Gellman calls Nixon's 1947 statement that he went to Capitol Hill to "smash the labor . . . bosses" apocryphal but provides no evidence for his contention. Nor does Gellman mention that quote's earliest reference, William Costello's 1960 book The Facts about Nixon, or the fact that contemporary historian Stephen E. Ambrose referenced the quote in the first volume of his massive 1987 Nixon biography, a book Gellman calls "a high point of objectivity."
Then there's Nixon's famous statement that appeared in the May 5, 1958, New Republic concerning his conduct during the vicious 1950 Senate race against Helen Gahagan Douglas: "I'm sorry about that episode. I was a very young man." Ambrose, like any "objective" historian, references the quote and Nixon's subsequent (and understandable) denial. In contrast, Gellman not only misstates the quote but also adopts without evidence Nixon's later stance, calling the 1958 statement a "misquote" that "despite continual denials . . . still persists."
But it's Gellman's attempts to whitewash Nixon's campaign strategies that do the most damage. This, of course, is the most important part of the book: the Watergate break-in occurred during the 1972 presidential campaign. If Gellman is to prove his thesis that the 1972 Nixon was vastly different from the simpler, honest 1946 Nixon, he must show Nixon's earliest campaigns were benign.
In fact, his early campaigns were far more furious and bombastic than his presidential races. Nixon played to win, and he did so by creating the impression that opponents like Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas were, if not communists, then certainly commie-symps.
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In his discussion of Nixon's first campaign, against incumbent New Dealer Voorhis in the 12th Congressional District, Gellman parrots Nixon's insistence that the national Congress of Industrial Organizations-Political Action Committee (which Nixon said included communist members) had endorsed Voorhis—a critical tactic in Nixon's predictable strategy of aligning his opponent with communists. In fact, as Voorhis tried to point out, the national PAC recommended—and then rejected—endorsing him. But that doesn't stop Gellman—like Nixon—from calling the PAC's "Recommendation" paper an "endorsement." Gellman also apparently felt no compunction about ignoring a newspaper ad put out by the Nixon camp a week later, which contained the double lie "Voorhis Admits PAC Endorsement."
Gellman's discussion of the 1950 Senate race is even worse. He completely ignores Nixon's favorite campaign statement, that Douglas was "pink right down to her underwear"—a characterization that not only calls her patriotism into question but also reminds chauvinistic voters of her femininity. Gellman then legitimizes Nixon's spurious tactic of linking Douglas' votes with radical New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio. Nixon's pink paper decrying a "Douglas/Marcantonio Axis" that spans 354 House votes wasn't related to any "issue," as Gellman attempts to show; it was simple character assassination, reminiscent of the brutal Soviet denunciations in the 1930s. Note to Gellman: Why not explain the 112 Nixon votes that coincided with this so-called "axis"?
What's so ironic about Gellman's "innocent," young Nixon is that Nixon substantially moderated his campaign rhetoric after his congressional years. Nixon never questioned the patriotism of John F. Kennedy, Pat Brown, Hubert Humphrey or even George McGovern. It's too bad Gellman was so quick to dispense with Nixon's apology for the 1950 race—it explains a great deal.
The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946-1952 by Irwin F. Gellman; Free Press. 590 pages. $30 hardcover.