Saturday, February 16, 2013

An American Liberal Remembered

She is woman worthy of our attention, a star in her day on Broadway, Hollywood and Washington D.C. She was the first to move from the entertainment world to the California political stage, ahead of George Murphy, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her story is a reminder of American Cold War politics, the winners and casualties. One of the winners was the disgraced Richard Nixon in this drama. His centenary reminded me of the loser, Helen Gahagen Douglas.

Douglas was in film during the thirties and married, in 1931, the actor, Melvyn Douglas. In the 1935 Sci-Fi movie, She, her character was Hosh-a-Motep who made famous those words, She Who Must Be Obeyed, later to pop up in Rumpole of the Bailey. Her portrayal also inspired the witch in Disney’s, Snow White.

In 1944 she ran and was elected to Congress where she served three terms. Her last election victory in the House of Representative was won by a 65% to 35% margin. In 1950 she challenged the incumbent Senator from California in the primary and won. But her opponent was the man who never missed a dirty trick. She was the one who first coined the name still remembered today, Tricky-Dick.

Nixon had graduated from Duke University Law School where he revealed a preview of what was to come. His paranoid / criminal mind began its descent when he organized a break-in to find out his class standing.

He was always first an opportunist and smear artist, the consummate practitioner of slimy politics. He rode the wave of the Red Scare in mid-century and painted Douglas, a Pinko, down to her underwear. His campaign callers on the telephone referred to Congresswoman Douglas as, that communist, Mrs. Hesselberg. This was Melvyn Douglas’ real last name. The reference had the slur of anti-Semitism. She was dubbed The Pink Lady. Posters were printed on pink paper and the association won him election. It is worthy of mention that JFK contributed to Nixon’s campaign. Opportunism was the operative word.

Left-leaning politics in those days meant advocacy of women’s rights, civil liberties and disarmament all of which she championed. Her service in FDR’s New Deal agencies was already out of fashion. Helen Gahagen Douglas had a close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. In Congress she supported peaceful uses of Atomic Energy. On the domestic front she toted a bag of groceries to the House floor demonstrating the reduced buying-power, families faced. She also pushed for affordable housing in California which was in the midst of a building boom. She was the first Congressperson to have Blacks on her staff, fought for anti-lynching laws and made an early effort to desegregate Jim Crow D.C. restaurants. All of these positions were reviled by Republicans as well as some in her own party. It was the tenor of the times.

Truman appointed her as an alternate delegate to the United Nations. Her involvement with Liberal politics never waned even as she returned to do two Broadway shows in the 50s. She later campaigned for both Kennedy and McGovern.

After her death in 1980 Alan Cranston eulogized her on the Senate floor saying, I believe Helen Gahagan Douglas was one of the grandest, most eloquent, deepest thinking people we have had in American politics. She stands among the best of our 20th century leaders, rivaling even Eleanor Roosevelt in stature, compassion and simple greatness.

When the Watergate fiasco was revealed bumper stickers appeared saying, Don’t Blame Me. I Voted For Helen Gahagen Douglas.

To our country's loss, Nixonian deceit has been bequeathed to the Karl Roves among us. Committed voices such as Douglas are in short supply. In a broad historical context we are in an extended Cold War mentality of fear & smear with new players to engender our loathing.

If it seems as if Nixon's domestic program would locate him left of Obama today that is a testimony of how far to the right our spectrum has drifted. Nixon was no ideologue; he was a pragmatist who fed on scare tactics. I suspect he would be quite at home alongside Eric Cantor.

Richard Nixon's legacy is that of a megalomaniac whose humble beginnings fed his reckless ambition for power ultimately exposing and toppling him in disgrace. Uneasy with the rank he attained Nixon's imagined enemies were finally his own projected self.

While Douglas went down in a bitter defeat it was Nixon who will be marked as an American tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Her agenda was enacted over time. Her personal loss was also the country's. In a greater sense she did prevail and her name is one among many that should be remembered

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