The Dragon Slayer
The United States had throttled its foes with steel. Now it was time to stand down and go home. Navy lieutenant John Renneburg was stationed at the Glenn L. Martin Company aeronautics complex near Baltimore in the summer of 1945. It was a sprawling plant where the firm’s big flying boats were built, then tested on the Chesapeake’s tranquil waters. In a single year at the conflict’s peak, American factories churned out ninety-six thousand warplanes—almost as many as those manufactured by Nazi Germany in seven years of war. The Martin plant was emblematic: one of the largest aviation works in the world, with fifty thousand employees building seaplanes, bombers, and other aircraft.
With victory, the nation faced a vast demobilization. The press brimmed with foreboding about the pain of “reconversion” to a peacetime economy. The army sent out thirty thousand telegrams canceling 95 percent of its orders for artillery, tanks, and other instruments of war. The navy stopped construction on a hundred ships. What the government needed now were regiments of lawyers to settle its contracts. That was Lieutenant Renneburg’s job until new orders arrived. He was going home, just as soon as he could train a replacement.
The man the navy sent was a dark-haired, dark-eyed veteran of the fighting in the Pacific, Lieutenant Richard Nixon. After returning from the Solomon Islands, Nixon had been given a course on federal contracting. He and his wife, Pat, bounced from Washington to Philadelphia to New York and ultimately to Stansbury Manor, a complex of two-story apartment buildings on a cove near the Martin airfield. In this pleasant backwater, he and Renneburg spent their days haggling with the firm’s accountants on behalf of the navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics.
Renneburg found Nixon smart and serious, yet amiable. The work was demanding, “and about the only chance we would have to relax would be when we would walk down to the officers’ mess,” a bit more than a quarter mile away. They spoke about music, for which they were both enthusiasts, and swapped stories about their wartime experiences. Inevitably, the conversation turned to civilian life, Renneburg remembered, and one day “I asked him what he was planning to do.”
It was a warm day, Indian summer. Nixon didn’t really know, he told his colleague as they ambled. The navy had offered him a promotion to commander. The world of business beckoned, and he and Pat were entranced by Manhattan. If nothing else turned up, his law partners had kept his old job open in his little hometown of Whittier, California. And then—out of the blue, Nixon said—he had gotten a letter from some folks back home who wanted him to run for Congress. It was a long shot: he would be chal- lenging a five-term incumbent. Nevertheless, intrigued, he had waited for the cheaper nightly long-distance rates and discussed it over the telephone.
“I’m not a politician,” Nixon told Renneburg. “I probably would be defeated.”
“I hope they didn’t reverse the charges,” his colleague said. “No, they didn’t.” Nixon smiled. “They seemed to be serious.”
Renneburg urged him to accept the offer. He admired Nixon’s qualities and thought he’d make a good congressman—a voice for a new generation in uniform coming home from war and seeking to build a better world.
“Even if you get defeated, you might get some clients,” Renneburg told him. “Somebody might remember the name of Nixon.”
For the very few who knew him well, the notion of “Congressman Nixon” was not exceptionally odd. All his life, he’d displayed an interest in history and politics. He was disciplined, hardworking, bright, and earnest, and had shown a rudimentary knack at winning school and club elections in Whittier. But those whipstitch contests were years ago. The congress- man who represented the Twelfth Congressional District—Representative Jerry Voorhis—was a sturdy veteran of the House Democratic majority propelled to office by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mighty New Deal coalition. In polls of the capital’s press corps, and of his fellow congressmen, the handsome, pipe-smoking Voorhis won top-ten rankings for diligence and integrity. He was the son of a retired automobile executive whose wealth could finance his campaigns. His constituent service earned him the loyalty of the district’s farmers and citrus ranchers, for whom he ably labored on the House Agriculture Committee, a coveted perch. In the three most recent elections, the Republicans had tried to supplant him with a popular coach, a celebrity preacher, and a respected businessman. He had whipped them all. Richard Nixon—Dick, to his friends and family; Nick in the navy; Nixie in college and Gus during law school—was thirty-two years old in 1945; not a bad-looking guy in his dress blues. “He looked so different: younger, real tanned, thinner, and of course very handsome in his blue uniform with all the braid and the white cap,” Pat wrote his parents.
Age would accentuate the flaws in his features—jowls, the spatulate nose and receding hairline—but not for decades. His hair was thick and black and wavy. His deep-set eyes were the darkest brown, and his face pleasantly symmetrical, especially if he’d just relax and grin. Glee clubs and choirs prized his voice, and he was a more than capable pianist. He liked Chopin and Brahms. “He is a romanticist at heart, but he doesn’t like to let this show,” a music teacher would recall.
Nixon had played on the football team in college, but only because they needed bodies to fill out the squad, for he was no athlete. His feet were big, his chest narrow, and his shoulders sloped. The navy had taught him to stand up straight, but his natural posture was to slouch, hands dangling.
His mind was his defining feature. It was sharp and analytical; his memory remarkable. He enjoyed little more than sprawling in an armchair with a yellow legal pad, chin on his chest, legs on a footrest, thoughts marching through his head. He liked it there, in that restless mind. It was where, in the unhappy times of his boyhood, he had fled. He was a daydreamer, a cloud counter, a bookworm as a youth, and at night he would lie in bed listening to the train whistles, conjuring the marvelous places he would go. He could be there with you without being there, seem like he was listening while his thoughts were far away. He passed folks on the street and didn’t see them; walked into them in hallways, offered a distracted nod and half a wave, and kept going. Some thought he was stuck-up, rude, or dour.
He wasn’t easy to like. He knew it, and it hurt. “All over town people talk about what a good natured fellow Don is and wonder how he could have such a sour puss brother,” he had written from the South Pacific in 1943, describing himself in a wartime “V mail” to his niece Laurene, the newborn baby daughter of his brother Donald. He welcomed her to the world, gave her “the scuttlebutt about your new relations,” and touched, as a Quaker, on war’s iniquity: “My hope for you is that when you are 17 your boyfriend won’t have to use V mail to write.”
It was a sweet letter, and some who saw that side of him found his awkwardness, that ungainly shyness, endearing. A friend liked to tell a story about Dick helping out with the dishes after dinner, leaving the kitchen and drifting through the house with a single glass, wiping it over and over, well past dry, transfixed by a speech he was crafting in his mind for an upcoming high school debate. It was a distinctive personality, peculiar even. Some accepted his preoccupation, but others saw calculation and gave him no credit for his dreaming.
He was given to small kindnesses, to bringing red roses to shut-ins, or sending little gifts of money to those who had fallen on hard times. At law school he befriended a disabled young man, put him on his ticket in a student election, and carried him up granite steps to class. He was a striver, a self-improver, and so—given the faults in his personality—an actor. If in small talk he was achingly inept, during high school and college he had thrust himself onstage—in school plays, collegiate debate, and public speaking competitions. He became a fine performer, his teachers recalled. His self-discipline was legendary, his preparation thorough. Others might come to rehearsal without knowing their lines; not Dick Nixon. He could lose himself in craft, ingest emotions, and affect and excite an audience. He yearned, above all, to be a great man. He had that sense of drama.
Nixon was looking to jump-start his life in those weeks after the war for, truth be told, he was a bit of a flop. He had excelled in high school and been offered an opportunity to study at Harvard or Yale, but his family’s tottering finances prohibited it, and so he had attended little Whittier College, enrollment four hundred, where the faculty was well intentioned but undistinguished. There he could live at home and continue to work at his father’s grocery store. It galled him. The crowning moment in his schooling was the day he was accepted, with a scholarship, to study law at Duke University. He showed not just happiness, but bliss at the prospect of escape. He was “not only fun, he was joyous, abandoned—the only time I remember him that way,” his college girlfriend said. But though he graduated from Duke with honors, he could not find work with a Wall Street firm. He applied, without success, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Finally, his mother prevailed upon a family friend to give Dick a desk in a local law office, and back he slunk, Mr. Nobody from Nowhere. Nixon’s first notable case was a disaster: he and the firm were sued for negligence and penalized thousands of dollars. He went bust at business, too. A scheme to market frozen orange juice failed, leaving him fending off irate creditors.
He was luckier in love. Pat was a spirited beauty—a gypsy, a vagabond, he fancied her—with looks that had earned her bit roles in Hollywood and a job modeling clothes in a swank Los Angeles department store as she worked her way through the University of Southern California. He was drawn to her pilgrim soul. Thelma Catherine Ryan (like Dick, she collected nicknames: Buddy in her youth and Pat as she grew older) was a fellow striver. She had been born in a Nevada mining camp, orphaned in her teens, and compelled to assume the household chores—cooking, laundry, cleaning—for herself and two brothers. Free of that drudgery, college degree in hand, she had no wish to be tied down and had resisted Dick’s advances. His intensity was off-putting. But he persevered—for resilience was another of his defining traits—and in time she came to see him as a man of destiny. As a gift, she gave him a figurine, a mounted knight on a charger. She was “willing to submerge her entire life to him,” said a friend. Her faith was his great asset.
For their honeymoon they filled a car’s trunk with canned goods and set off on a road trip through the Southwest and Mexico. As a wedding prank, their friends had stripped the labels from the cans, and they’d end up eating stew for breakfast. For their first anniversary, they drove to New Orleans, split an order of Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s, and rode a steamer around the Caribbean. In 1941, they had leapt at the opportunity to move to Washington, where big things were happening. But Nixon’s work as a bureaucrat in the Office of Price Administration, writing rationing rules, was stifling, and he felt out of place among the East Coast whiz kids—the Ivy League liberals and bright, left-leaning Jewish attorneys who served the New Deal as men-at-arms. Six months after Pearl Harbor, recognizing his duty and yearning for excitement, he enlisted.
They sent him to a navy air training station—carved, incongruously, from the landlocked cornfields of Ottumwa, Iowa. He was newly married and a Quaker, and it was safe there in the Midwest, pushing paper. But displaying his sense of obligation, he lobbied for a transfer to combat. “Sir, I have a letter from Lt. (jg) Richard Nixon . . . now in Ottumwa, Iowa— legal officer & crying his heart out” to get into Air Combat Intelligence, a superior noted. “He is a good one . . . young, no children & wants A.C.I.” A man could get himself killed, friends told him. Dick should leave the fighting to the single men, Pat’s brother advised. But Nixon was insistent, and ultimately, the navy shrugged and dispatched the young lieutenant to the war zone.
In the South Pacific, Nixon served on a series of island outposts where he supervised the work of a combat air transport team, moving ammunition, reinforcements, and food and medicine to the front, and the wounded to the rear. He wrote to Pat, telling her not to worry about the recur- rent Japanese shelling and bombing, for only the morons who refused to take shelter got killed, and his bunker on Bougainville was roomy and protective—with a roof of logs and sandbags. There was plenty of down-time, much of which he whiled away in the discordant style of a fighting Quaker—reading his Bible or playing poker. He sent aching letters to her and read voraciously, copying down odd lines of speech and poetry, tearing out articles from magazines and newspapers and jotting his thoughts in the margins, or in journals he kept, about such disparate subjects as the female enigma, the ability of civilian populations to endure strategic bombing, the role of China in world affairs, and the dark sides of human nature.
In a moment of self-recognition, perhaps, he jotted down a line, attributed to Tennyson, from a pulpy short story in Collier’s magazine: The most virtuous hearts have a touch of hell’s own fire in them.
“He was struck by what he was learning about men,” said Albert Upton, a favorite college instructor with whom Dick corresponded. “It was the first opportunity that he had ever had, I think, to see how much evil there is in the world around you, not just how much evil there is in Shanghai or Timbuktu, but how much evil there may even be in Whittier, California, where supposedly everybody goes to church.” Nixon came to loathe the disorder and waste of war. Writing to Upton, he spoke of the need for moral rearmament, a Christian movement that taught brotherhood, peace, and spiritual purity. His heroes were Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, who had tried to build a structure for peace and convey America’s democratic values to the world. “Men’s hearts wait upon us,” Wilson had said in his first inaugural—words that Nixon would one day cite in speeches. “Who dares fail to try?”
There is cool and there is square, and Richard Milhous Nixon was nothing if not square. Duty called. Work got done. Yet he was no martinet, and something of a happy finagler, treating his enlisted men to a ham dinner after helping to “liberate” the meat from a passing plane and finding beer for the Seabees, who in turn built a comfortable hut—complete with shower—for Nick and his fellow officers. He was generous with the loot. Pilots relished the offerings at “Nick’s Snack Shop,” the hut at the airfield where they could wind down over hamburgers, coffee, or cold pineapple juice between missions. He learned how to cuss. And for a good Quaker boy, raised in a pious community, he proved a shark at cards. The amount of his winnings would be exaggerated over the years, but by the time the war was over, lumped in with what he and Pat saved from their paychecks, they had put aside some $10,000.
After fourteen months his tour was over. He flew out, with a refueling stop at a Pacific island. “It was one of those rare nights . . . a soft full moon, not as warm as usual, just the whisper of a breeze in the air,” he would remember, and he strolled to stretch his legs. He came upon the “lonesome beauty” of a military cemetery—“no lawn, no monuments, the simplicity of white crosses in the white sand”—and pondered the loss. He yearned “for the building of a new world, which would not know the horror of war.” And then he was home and caressing Pat at an airport gate.
They were in New York when, on August 14, the Japanese surrender was announced. With two million other revelers, Pat and Dick headed to Times Square. They walked around the city, through downtown’s ethnic neighborhoods and up Fifth Avenue. “It was the largest, happiest mob I ever saw. Service men were kissing all the unescorted girls and the girls didn’t mind a bit. . . . Chinatown looked like Christmas Eve with Fourth of July thrown in. . . . Flags, banners and decorations of all description covered the buildings,” he wrote his parents. He and Pat stopped in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, crowded with the faithful offering prayers of thanks. “I only hope we can keep this peace,” he wrote.
Years later, remembering, Nixon saw the war as “the catalyst” that had transformed his interest in politics into a sense of mission. He was a realist about human behavior, but his generation had an obligation, he believed, to find a better way. “He seemed to be dreaming about some new order which would make wars impossible,” said Gretchen King, who had befriended Pat while her husband was at war and spent time with the couple after he returned. “He impressed us in those days as an idealistic dreamer.”
The war “turned a great many of them with a very high idealistic feeling into politics,” said Adela Rogers St. Johns, a California journalist and Whittier neighbor who came to know Dick well. “He came back with that very strong feeling, that we fought a war, a good many men had died to save this country, and now, let us make it what those boys had died for.”
And yet . . . Congress. No matter how he’d grown, he was still Dick from Whittier, that “eddy on the stream of life,” as a college classmate called it. People there were isolated and parochial: by choice they kept the highways outside town. Sure, the Quakers saw him as a fair-haired boy—he had been elected to student office in college, chosen to lead the junior Kiwanis club, and appointed to serve as an assistant city attorney. But he had never campaigned for public office and was thoroughly unknown in the rest of the vast Twelfth District. The lives of American presidents are often cast as Horatio Alger tales, and the stories of their rise barnacled with myths. Yet few came so far, so fast, so alone, as Nixon. Not the governor of California or his aides, nor any member of the state’s delegation to Congress knew Richard Nixon’s name. He was, he would remember, “somebody who was nothing.”
And charm, for Nixon, was an act of will. He had endured a dismal childhood, awash in gloom and grief. Two of his brothers died of gruesome illnesses. His father, Frank Nixon, was a cranky blowhard—a grade- school dropout who had come west from Ohio, married into local Quaker gentility, been staked by his in-laws to a farm in nearby Yorba Linda, and managed to fail at growing lemons in one of the planet’s most bountiful citrus belts. Frank moved from farming to pumping gas and then opened a grocery store. They lived not in the tree-lined neighborhoods of town, but out on the highway, where Frank peddled groceries from an abandoned church. He conferred resentment to his son.
In the South Pacific, Dick had joined in camaraderie and learned how to lead. But the notion that he could return to California after four years away, engage the voters of the sprawling Twelfth District, and defeat a veteran congressman seemed inconceivable. He had no name, no fortune, no political machine.
What he had was Herman Perry.
It was Perry, the vice president and branch manager of the Bank of America in Whittier, who had sent the letter inviting Nixon to challenge Voorhis. It arrived by airmail. “Dear Dick,” Perry wrote on September 29, 1945. “I am writing you this short note to ask you if you would like to be a candidate for Congress on the Republican ticket.” The banker didn’t offer much information. The incumbent was a Democrat, he noted, and the voters in the district were split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans. In a postscript he remembered to ask Nixon: “Are you a registered voter in California?”
Perry, a native Indianan, was a man of stature in Whittier. He had arrived in Southern California in 1906, when the town had but a few hundred families, at the height of one of the Southland’s booms. Ads hailing a West Coast paradise had dotted newspapers across the Midwest, luring people to Los Angeles and its sensuous climate. Two railway companies ran a thousand miles of streetcar line, like radials in a spider’s web, west toward the beaches and out into the empty desert. The city fathers, with infamous duplicity, swiped a precious water supply from the far-off Owens Valley. Thickets of oil derricks dotted the coastal plain. Hollywood was incorporated, and daft developers launched projects like Venice-by-the-Sea, complete with canals and gondolas. The population of Los Angeles County soared from 33,000 in 1880 to 504,000 in 1910. Most of “the Folks,” as they were called, were transplants from the heartland: shopkeepers like Perry or farm folk like the Milhous clan—who dismantled their Indiana home and shipped the timbers, doors, and windows by train for reassembly in Whittier.
The town had been founded at century’s turn by prosperous, cliquish Quakers, who gave it its insular character. They were of a western strain of the faith: less plain and pacifist, more smug and businesslike. “I was never asked inside a Friend’s house, in the more than forty years I lived in Whittier,” recalled the writer M. F. K. Fisher, the daughter of the local newspaper editor, an Anglican. Many of the townsfolk were gentle and fine, but others in “that land of thees and thous and daily snubs” were “sanctimonious bastards,” she remembered. Drinking was outlawed, smoking, card playing, dancing, and flirtation discouraged.
Perry shifted to finance, rising to the role of local consul for California’s own Bank of America, whose monopolistic practices fueled its transformation from a San Francisco storefront to the world’s largest bank. Stout and stouthearted, he was the town’s Mr. Republican: representing his neighbors on the county committee and making sure that their sober sentiments were reflected at the polls on Election Day. People called him “Uncle Her- man,” but his style was as stern as it was avuncular. In that part of Los Angeles County, “he was Bank of America,” Donald Fantz, an appliance store owner, recalled, and “it was a privilege to be able to go and pull up your chair alongside his desk if you had some problems or something, and talk them over with him.” Yet Perry was “ruled by his head, certainly, and not by his heart. I mean, he was a banker, first and foremost. Herman Perry would react on cold facts.”
Among those who had turned to Perry for loans was Frank Nixon, who arrived in Whittier from Ohio in 1907. Perry had been a guest at Frank’s wedding to Hannah, a classmate of Herman’s and the daughter of fellow Hoosiers. The bank’s credit helped the Nixon store survive the Depression, and Perry’s son Hubert attended high school and college with Dick. When Dick returned to Whittier from law school at Duke, his office was in the Bank of America building, the Beaux Arts landmark on Philadelphia Street that towered above the groves of citrus like a Crusader castle on the Levantine plain.
Herman Perry had two great unmet goals in life: to be a lawyer and to serve in Congress. And he found in Dick “a kind of fulfillment of his own ambitions,” said Hubert, who had tried and failed at law school himself. “I . . . might even say that I thought my dad was disappointed in me and looked upon Nixon as his favorite son. . . . He saw in Dick Nixon his own dreams that he couldn’t make happen.”
In 1944, Don Lycan, a vice president for Signal Oil & Gas, the largest independent oil company on the West Coast, had called on his friend Herman. Lycan was leading a drive to dump Voorhis, but since the oil industry was a scandalous font of corruption at the time, he had come in need of a front man. Perry was willing to play the role, but it was a fool’s errand, he told the oilman: the congressman was too popular. Not so, Lycan argued. “If we really get serious we could beat him.” The country was heading hell-bent to socialism and Voorhis had to be stopped. Lycan promised Perry that California’s oil and business interests would supply the necessary funds.
Voorhis, a graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale, held views that decidedly tilted left. In his youth, during the Depression, he had been a member of the Socialist Party, and in Congress he had angered more than oil executives. His proposals to increase the authority of the Federal Reserve Board vexed banks. He infuriated manufacturers and big agricultural interests with his support of labor unions. He sought to subject insurance companies to tougher antitrust rules. And when voting for the New Deal’s expansive structure of price controls, rationing, and commercial regulations, Voorhis irked many of the conservative small-town businessmen who, with the farmers and citrus ranchers, were core voters in his district. They had kept an aggrieved silence during the crises of war and depression but now were finding their voice. Roosevelt’s programs sapped individual initiative, these self-made men believed; made people soft, serf-like, and dependent on government.
As Perry predicted, the 1944 campaign was a failure. The Republican candidate, oilman Roy McLaughlin, was “a very presentable elderly man,” as one of his fund-raisers put it, but he lacked the vim to unseat Voorhis. The Republicans tried to make an issue of the congressman’s support from left-leaning labor unions, but McLaughlin was not the kind of gut fighter to call Voorhis a Communist and make it stick. Nor was the moment ripe: it was still wartime, and Uncle Joe Stalin was America’s ally.
Knowing that McLaughlin was headed for defeat, Perry retained $500 from the $2,000 that Lycan had given him. A seed had taken root. When they met again in 1945 to assess the situation, the convert was preaching to the prophet. Perry knew a young man—a navy lieutenant named Nixon—who could beat Voorhis. He would write him, Perry told Lycan, and use the $500 to buy him an airplane ticket to California. And one more thing, Perry said: they would need much more than $2,000 this time. The oilman heard him out, grunted, and said, “All right, go ahead. My friends and I will supply you with the additional funds.”
There was little chance that Dick and Pat would not leap at the opportunity—they pictured each other, after all, as a bold chevalier and his gypsy love. “I was a bit naïve . . . a dragon slayer I suppose,” said Dick. But in their Maryland apartment, reading and rereading Perry’s letter, they suppressed their excitement, forced themselves to act responsibly, and weighed the prospects. Money was the chief consideration: the election was a year away, and Dick would have no paycheck once he left the navy. They had their $10,000 to fall back on, but no home or car. Moreover, Pat was pregnant, and the baby due in February. Yet the war had given them, like many in that generation, a taste for the dance with fate. They saw this was their shot—the moment they had been chasing since the mean days of their youth, their ticket out of dullsville. Pat “liked adventure,” Dick remembered. “She knew my interests. . . . She thought that it was very important to live an exciting life.”
“I married a crusader,” Pat would say, in turn. “I suppose there never was much question about it.”
The odds, a year out, looked “relatively hopeless,” but Nixon had a hunch that times were changing. Roosevelt had died in April 1945. Folks were tired of the regimentations of the New Deal and the war; sick of sacrifice, hungry for latitude and liberty. They wanted to fill their cars with gas, “use a second chunk of butter, watch the long lazy curl of a fishing line flicker in the sunlight, or get royally tight, without feeling that they were cheating some GI in the flak over Berlin or on the bloody ash of Iwo Jima,” wrote the Cold War chronicler Eric Goldman. While stationed in the South Pacific, Dick had met Harold Stassen, the Republican “boy governor” of Minnesota, who had resigned his office to serve in the navy. They talked about postwar politics, and Stassen predicted a “radical change in the political weather” when the fighting was over. A young veteran, running as a fresh new voice, could “cash in,” Nixon concluded.
So this was risk, but not folly. Perry’s letter “sparked something” in his friend Dick, Hubert Perry remembered, “like a minister getting a call from Jesus.” Dick and Pat didn’t have much, so they didn’t have much to lose. And as his friend Renneburg said: if Nixon was defeated, he could use the publicity and the connections he would make to land at a big Los Angeles law firm. Dick told Pat: “Let’s do it.”
It wasn’t quite that simple, Herman Perry warned him when they spoke on the telephone in the first week of October. Nixon would have to audition before a group of Republican activists and survive a primary. There were names floating in the press—men like General George Patton, the war hero, and Walter Dexter, the state superintendent of education—who could have the nomination if they wanted it. But Pat and Dick were all in. “After having been away for such a long time . . . it was certainly a wonder- ful surprise to learn that I was even being considered,” he wrote Perry in a follow-up letter on October 6. “I feel very strongly that Jerry Voorhis can be beaten and I’d welcome the opportunity to take a crack at him.” He promised to wage “an aggressive, vigorous campaign of practical liberalism” to replace “Voorhis’s particular brand of New Deal.” The congressman’s “lack of a military record won’t help him, particularly since most of the boys will be home and voting,” Nixon noted. He had just been promoted to Lieutenant Commander and with his savings would be able “to stand the financial expense” of a yearlong campaign. He promised “to tear Voorhis to pieces.”
The Republican establishment was not as ardent. The party machinery in the Twelfth District was dominated by a handful of aged men and women who had concluded that it was hopeless “to get a substantial per- son to run against Mr. Voorhis, because he was defeating his opponents by such huge majorities,” recalled Earl Adams, a young, politically minded lawyer from San Marino. “Very few people wanted to be crucified.” Nor would there be help from Washington or Sacramento. Governor Earl Warren was Republican, but almost in name only. Like the popular former governor and U.S. senator Hiram Johnson, who died that year after thirty- four years in office, Warren ran as an independent progressive Republican, appealing to all persuasions in California’s unpartisan political tradition, and staying out of local races. The Twelfth District had undergone redistricting after the 1940 census, and Republican lawmakers had stripped Voorhis of some of his stronger wards in East Los Angeles, yet he had pre- vailed in 1942 and 1944. Voorhis couldn’t be beat, the Republican elders decided, certainly not by some navy lieutenant.
“My first impression of Nixon was that here was a serious, determined, somewhat gawky young fellow who was out on a sort of a giant-killer operation,” recalled Kyle Palmer, the chief political writer for the Los Angeles Times, the region’s biggest newspaper. Palmer, a likable tough guy with piratical instincts, acted with the blessing of the paper’s conservative owners as the state’s premier political power broker. “The Republicans—including myself—generally felt that it was a forlorn effort.”
And so, if it were to succeed, the crusade would have to be launched outside the normal party channels. It emerged in the form of the ad hoc “Twelfth Congressional District Republican Candidate and Fact Finding Committee,” which came to be known as the “Committee of 100” (for the approximate number of its members) or, to themselves, as “the Amateurs.” Roy Day, a gruff forty-four-year-old advertising salesman from Pomona, was the organizer. He ran the commercial printing business of a local newspaper and was one of those indispensable men who answered a community’s call when its service groups—the Lions Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Campfire Girls—needed an indefatigable wheel horse. He was an adman, a booster. Bullheaded, he had been drawn into politics in 1944 when a Republican state legislator died in mid-election, and Day organized a friend’s victorious write-in campaign. The experience had exposed him to his party’s complacency. “I got disgusted,” he recalled. “We were blowing our own ball game.”
Day volunteered to serve and, with the blessings of the Los Angeles county chairman, recruited the rump “fact-finding” team. He picked the number—one hundred—out of the air and roamed the district, talking to Republican club women, local committeemen, and business leaders like Perry; Roy Crocker, fifty-two, a savings and loan executive from tony San Marino; and J. Arthur Kruse, forty-seven, the chairman of a thrift from the district’s biggest community, Alhambra.
“We younger men didn’t realize that it was impossible. We were ignorant,” recalled insurance man Frank Jorgensen, forty-three, a self-described “irascible son of a bitch” from San Marino. “We young bucks came in and got busy. . . . We didn’t know top from bottom how to run a campaign. Except we were businessmen and we knew how to sell. We took the position that a political campaign was nothing more than selling a product.” The initial gathering was at Eaton’s, a sprawling hotel and restaurant on Route 66, near the Santa Anita racetrack. Over coffee or lunch, in hotel meeting rooms and at neighborhood cocktail parties, they refined their vision of a winning candidate: Young. Educated. Married. A veteran. Most of all, an aggressive campaigner.
The Twelfth District was the largest and most rural in Los Angeles County, a polyhedron with clusters of towns at its vertices and several hundred square miles of citrus, walnut, and avocado groves and dust-brown hills and ridges in between. At the base were Nixon’s old haunts of Whit- tier and La Habra, where Perry and his associate at the Bank of America, Harold Lutz, were raising money and organizing the Friends. To the east were Claremont, San Dimas, and Pomona, an eclectic mix of college and farm towns, home to Voorhis and Day. And to the west, closest to down- town Los Angeles, were heavily populated suburbs, with Democratic precincts in El Monte and Monterey Park, fast-growing Alhambra and San Gabriel, and the lushly gardened lanes of San Marino and South Pasadena. There were “powerful” economic interests that would back Republican candidates in the 1946 campaign, Day promised Dexter, who was thinking it over. But the Amateurs themselves were small businessmen: Babbitts, not Vanderbilts. It went without saying that they were anti-union, anti-Roosevelt, and anti-Communist. “A lot of us felt that Roosevelt had been very soft on Communism,” Jorgensen recalled. “I think he was befuddled a good deal of the time and fooled by Stalin.”
The Amateurs issued a press release, announcing their search for a Cinderella: it was a novel approach, far from the smoke-filled rooms, and it drew some interest from the local press. They were dismayed at the first crop of pretenders, which included a right-wing bigot and a self-declared Republican who, upon investigation, turned out to be a Socialist. “My God . . . let’s don’t waste our time,” Jorgensen thought. Then Perry spread the word. “Some of the people in the Whittier area are interested in suggesting the name of Lt. Richard Nixon. . . . He has had over three years of war service,” Perry wrote the Amateurs. Nixon was a skilled orator and “comes from good Quaker stock. . . . He is a very aggressive individual.”
Inquiries were made. “I found out Dick didn’t have money, that he . . . worked his way through college. This made an impression on me,” Day recalled. Jorgensen and his San Marino buddies rode over to Whittier, dropped in at Nixon’s former law firm, and assessed his parents at the family store. “Everything I have been able to learn regarding this man is all to the good,” Day wrote to Perry on October 12. “I believe it would be very much worth his while to arrange to be at our next meeting.”
Patton was never a serious option, and by Christmas he was dead, killed in a car crash in Europe. Herman Perry’s arm-twisting removed Dexter, a former president of Whittier College, whose career the banker had long promoted.
On October 16 Perry informed Nixon that Dexter was out of the race, and that Dick should make plans to come west to make a presentation to the Committee of 100 and have lunch with the area’s top Republicans so that they could “look you over.”
They needed to pull some strings—commercial air travel was difficult to schedule in those weeks after the war—but Nixon secured a ticket to Los Angeles. On the evening of Thursday, November 1, he spoke to forty friends and family members gathered at a testimonial dinner in his honor at the Dinner Bell Ranch in Whittier. The young veterans coming home wanted opportunity, Nixon said: “They don’t want . . . government employment or bread lines. They want a fair chance at the American way of life.” Roy Day was in the audience, studying Nixon carefully. By the end of the evening, he was exultant. “That’s saleable merchandise,” Day told his friends.
Nixon cleared the next hurdle at the University Club in downtown Los Angeles that Friday, at a lunch with Republican leaders in an upstairs private dining room. Perry was out of town so Dick, still in his navy uniform, was escorted by Tom Bewley, his old law partner, and Gerald Kepple, a former assemblyman from Whittier. Day and Jorgensen and some others from the San Marino group were there, and representatives of various Republican factions, including McIntyre Faries, the GOP national committeeman, and John Garland, a real estate developer who had married into the Chandler family, which owned and ran the Los Angeles Times.
Garland was skeptical about this “mysterious” navy officer that the Amateurs were touting. But “I immediately liked him because he was totally frank, completely open,” he recalled. Nixon wanted a commitment that the money would be there if he ran. Jorgensen assured him that fund- raising would not be a problem. They discussed the district, its voting patterns, and other matters. At the end Dick stood and told them, “I’m in your hands.”
At the William Penn Hotel in Whittier that night, Nixon made his formal pitch to the Committee of 100. He spoke on the virtues of free enterprise and again of the need for “practical” liberalism. He was not a hardline conservative, for he had witnessed, in war and depression, how Americans could employ an active, muscular government and achieve great things. Dick’s father, who had shaped his son’s political leanings, was a latitudinarian populist, while Hannah and her family were progressive Republicans. A New Deal program had helped Dick pay for law school. But Nixon shared his audience’s decided belief that now—the crises abated— a continuing drift toward a planned economy was perilous. “I made a ten- minute speech,” he would recall. “I did rather well, apparently.” Indeed. In all three appearances, he dazzled. “He was excellent. He was just an unbelievable choice. It was like finding a diamond,” Lutz marveled. “It was like saying goodbye at the gate to the race horse.”
Dick took a red-eye back to Maryland. His hopes were lifted a few days later, when he received the reviews of his visit from Bewley. “The entire district is thrilled,” the lawyer wrote. “I think you will get the nomination by a landslide. . . . The thing took hold and is going over big.” In his own letter to Nixon, Day promised “off the record” that the Amateurs would fix the vote to make sure Nixon was selected. “Frankly Dick, we feel we have SOMETHING AND SOMEBODY to sell to this district now, and are going to do our very best to close the deal,” he wrote.
Not everyone in Whittier cheered. To his friend Osmyn Stout, who had served on their college debating team with Nixon, the Amateurs rep- resented “the most conservative, reactionary people” in the district. Stout, a pacifist, had thought of Dick as a forward-thinking, kind, and “exemplary” idealist. But now Nixon was aligned with the narrow-minded forces of conformity, Stout concluded: “He had sold his soul.”
As Day promised, the first ballot was sixty-three for Nixon and fourteen for two also-rans. Pat and Dick had stayed up late in Maryland, awaiting word. It came two hours after midnight. “Dick, the nomination is yours!” Day shouted. When Perry called a few moments later, Nixon recalled a lesson that his mother had taught him—a gentleman has never heard the punch line—and acted as if he was just getting the news. The navy wanted him in New York in the morning, but he and Pat, chattering, never got to bed.
Nixon was exhilarated. He was soon on the train to Washington to confer with Republican Party officials, GOP congressional leaders, and members of the California delegation. “The main emphasis should be on the constructive program we have to offer,” he wrote Perry. He suggested that they seek the backing of the local college faculties and told of a speech he was writing, to be given in the churches, urging racial tolerance. “I’m sure we can win,” Nixon said. “And that we can retain our integrity as well because we shall only say what we believe and do.”
There was this, too. While visiting Washington, Nixon had hit upon a line of attack. The capital’s left-wingers—the “fellow travelers”—were “wild about” Voorhis, Nixon reported. The Republican Party researchers had quite a file on the congressman and his voting record. It would be guilt by association, for everyone knew that Voorhis was no Communist, but if they could portray him as a Red dupe, “I believe we can make Mr. Voorhis sweat.”
Dick pulled out his yellow pads, filling line after line with notes and reminders, intent on leaving nothing to chance: Set up budget . . . office furniture . . . need for paid workers . . . call on newspapers, former candidates, leaders . . . arrange church and lodge and veterans meetings . . . set up lists for mailings . . . billboards . . . bumper stickers . . . Nixon clubs each town (now) . . . study V. voting record.
This was his hour; his chance to be someone. To excise the hurt. To stake his claim. He needed to win, and his plans revealed his hunger, and an incipient susceptibility to intrigue.
Set up . . . spies in V. camp, he wrote.