(This article was written for The New Nixon last Thanksgiving. Recently, the editor of The Jewish Press, “America’s Largest Independent Jewish Weekly,” asked permission to use it in the print and on line editions of that paper in the days before Thanksgiving this year. – DRS)
Ever hear of Gershom Mendes Seixas? Well, he might just be the forgotten hero of Thanksgiving.
Our national Thanksgiving narrative is rich with stories about proclamations, gatherings, meals, traditions, football, and of course, the obligatory pardoning of a turkey by the president of these United States. School children rehearse that day long ago when the Plymouth pilgrims broke bread. We note things Lincoln said. And doubtless you have heard about what our first president, George Washington, declared while proclaiming the first “official” national day of Thanksgiving in 1789:
I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
We hear much these days about our “Judeo-Christian” heritage and its early and enduring influence on our culture. A look back at the founding era of our nation reminds us, however, that only about 2,500 Jews actually lived in the colonies in 1776. Usually those of us who speak of that early dual influence are referring to the Christian Bible with its Jewish roots.
But pointing this out is not to say that Jews were not active and represented during the colonial and founding periods, quite the contrary – there are some fascinating and often overlooked stories.
Gershom Mendes Seixas is a case in point. He was “American Judaism’s first public figure.” In 1768, he was appointed hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York – the only synagogue serving the city’s approximately 300 Jewish residents. He was only 23 years old at the time and largely self-taught in the Talmud with much help from his devout father, though never actually an “official” rabbi. In fact, it would be several decades before a rabbi was ordained in America.
Seixas was the first Jewish preacher to use the English language in his homilies. He was a gifted teacher and tireless worker. And when it came to the American Revolution, he was a patriot – as demonstrated by his actions while the colonies were struggling to actually realize the independence that had been recently proclaimed.
His synagogue, like the much of the greater public, was somewhat divided on the issue of independence. But Seixas used all of his persuasive skills to convince his congregation that they should cease operations in advance of the approaching British occupation of the city, during the early days of the conflict.
He fled to his wife’s family home in Connecticut, carrying various books and scrolls precious to the synagogue for safekeeping. In 1780, he accepted the leadership role at a synagogue in Philadelphia, where he became an outspoken cultural voice regularly calling on God to watch over General Washington and the great cause.
When the war ended, he was invited back to resume his work with Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. He returned with the books and scrolls to serve from 1784 until his death 32 years later.
When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, Seixas was asked to participate as one of the presiding clergyman. This was certainly an act of gratitude by Washington for the preacher’s stalwart support during the war. It was also, though, an expression of Washington’s thinking about the importance of religious freedom and diversity in the new nation.
Later that year, as the nation set aside Thursday, the 26th of November, the date so designated by the president for Thanksgiving, Seixas preached a sermon to his New York congregation.
His Thanksgiving Day message was based on a text from the Psalms where it talked about how King David had “made a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Seixas told his listeners that they had much to rejoice about – “the new nation, its president, and above all, the new constitution.”
Warming to his theme, he reminded them that they were “equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government,” and therefore should be good citizens in full support of the government. Beyond that, they were encouraged to conduct themselves as “living evidences of his divine power and unity.” He further admonished them “to live as Jews ought to do in brotherhood and amity, to seek peace and pursue it.”
In my opinion, Gershom Mendes Seixas’ sermon is every bit as relevant to all of us 220 years later.
At Air America and The Huffington Post, Mark Green compares Sarah Palin and Richard Nixon. He notes an obvious difference: RN “was vastly more experienced and sophisticated.” He has a point, but one could make the same point about most other political figures, including the incumbent president. Barack Obama is the first White House occupant since Harding with neither military nor executive experience, and even liberal observers are starting to notice the consequences. Leslie Gelb unfavorably contrasts Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy with President Obama’s recent Asia trip, which he says “suggests a disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power.”
Green notes RN’s ideological pragmatism and asks rhetorically: “When has Palin ever shown such a moderating inclination?” One may find the answer in an Associated Press report from May of 2008:
During her first year in office, Palin distanced herself from the old guard, powerful members of the state GOP. She asked Alaska’s congressional delegation to be more selective in seeking earmarks after the state’s “Bridge to Nowhere” became a national symbol of piggish pork-barrel spending. She stood up to the oil interests that hold great power in Alaska, and with bipartisan support in the statehouse, she won a tax increase on oil companies’ profits.
The biggest similarity, Green says, is that Palin practices the “politics of resentment” by attacking elites. It is true that RN considered himself an outsider, as does Palin. But as James Ceaser and Andrew Busch explain in their book on the 1992 election, Upside Down and Inside Out, “outsiderism” is a very old tradition in American politics. The next time Green goes to one of his party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, he will find himself honoring two practitioners of that tradition.
A couple of months ago the First Lady made a guest appearance on the opening episode of the 40th anniversary season of Sesame Street. (And last month I saluted the charming PSA that resulted.)
Sesame Street premiered in November 1969, and a year later — on 12 December 1970 — PN invited the cast to a children’s Christmas party at the White House.
PN was Big Bird’s friend through fair times and fowl, and on 28 January 1981, she introduced her fine feathered friend to another generation of Nixon family fans. As The New York Times reported:
The great-granddaughter of one President and her cousin, the grandson of another President, had their chance Wednesday to look in awe upon Big Bird and his friends in person.
A visit to the ”Sesame Street” TV studio, at Broadway and 81st Street, was arranged ”just like any other grandmother would,” said a studio spokesman, by Pat Nixon, wife of the former President, for Jennie Eisenhower and Christopher Cox.
Jennie, who is almost 2 1/2 years old, is the daughter of the former Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower, grandson of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Christopher’s parents are the former Tricia Nixon and Edward M. Cox, a New York lawyer.
The children were accompanied to the TV studio by their grandmother and Mrs. Cox. When Big Bird stepped forward to greet them, Jennie Eisenhower gurgled gleefully and said to Mrs. Nixon, ”Look, grandma, he’s just like Big Bird in the picture over my bed.”
During his second term, RN made expanding health coverage to all Americans a centerpiece of his domestic agenda.
“If the Government pays all the medical bills, then only the Government has a stake in holding down medical costs. This means that Government officials would have to approve hospital budgets and set fee schedules and take other steps that would eventually lead to the complete Federal domination of American medicine. I think this is the wrong road for America. It is the road that has been taken by so many countries abroad to their regret.” (Richard Nixon Radio Address November 3, 1972)
The Obama administration has taken on the issue of health care reform today in the United States, but this type of reform is not new. Richard Nixon had a significant role in healthcare during his presidency and if unimpeded could have helped prevent the current health care crisis in the United States. Specifically, in 1973, Nixon passed two important pieces of legislation that changed health care in the country. The Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973 required employers with traditional health plans to also provide the option of choosing an HMO for its employees. The act also made it mandatory for employers to contribute as much to the HMO as they did to their regular plans. The Veterans Health Care Expansion Act of 1973 substantially expanded the health benefits available to our nation’s veterans and their families.
These two bills were only a piece of Nixon influence on health care during his presidency. Nixon’s most controversial and far reaching policy proposal was the Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan. This plan had seven key principles. First, it offered every American an opportunity to obtain a balanced, comprehensive range of health insurance benefits. Second, it would cost no American more than he can afford to pay. Third, it built on the strength and diversity of the existing public and private systems of health care financing and harmonized them into an overall system. Fourth, it used public funds only where needed and required no new federal taxes. Fifth, it would maintain freedom of choice by patients and ensure that doctors work for their patient, not for the federal government. Sixth, it encouraged more effective use of our health care resources. Seventh, it was organized so that all parties would have a direct stake in making the system work: consumer, provider, insurer, state governments and the federal government.
The most crucial part of Nixon’s plan was the employer mandate. Under this plan, every employer would be required to offer all full-time employees the Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan. Additional benefits could then be added by mutual agreement. The insurance plan would be jointly financed, with employers paying 65 percent of the premium for the first three years of the plan, and 75 percent thereafter. Employees would pay the balance of the premiums. Temporary federal subsidies would be used to ease the initial burden on employers who face significant cost increases.
In a unique moment of bi-partisan cooperation, in early 1974 Nixon’s political opponent in the Senate, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, agreed to a compromised deal of the Comprehensive Health Insurance Program and together they prepared to get the health care legislation passed through Congress. Unfortunately, the brewing Watergate scandal which soon took over the headlines, coupled with the subsequent lack of cooperation from Kennedy, prevented the President from pushing through with this initiative. With the President unable to continue to rally support, the efforts of labor unions, who hoped for a better deal under a new presidential administration, succeeded in derailing the Nixon-Kennedy health care bill.
If this bill were to have passed, would there be a health care crisis today? President Obama is currently facing criticism from some on the right of setting the stage for a socialist dictatorship under the appearance of health care reform. However, President Obama seems to be steering clear of a proposal for a mandate calling for all employers to provide health insurance, as was ventured by Nixon and Kennedy in 1974. Every employer, under Nixon’s plan, would have been required to offer all full-time employees the Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan. The rumor of Obama’s health insurance program is that it is a plan that would be modeled after the Medicare program that Americans are familiar with today. It would be available to those Americans who didn’t have good coverage from their employer. It would also be available to workers who worked in the smallest firms. And it would be made available through some kind of new insurance-purchasing exchange, through which people could get access to both private health insurance plans and this new public plan.
For his part, Nixon emphasized that his Comprehensive Health Insurance would not lead to an extreme program that would place the entire health care system under the dominion of social planners in Washington. Nixon wanted to continue to have doctors to work for their patients, not for the federal government. He believed that one of the most cherished goals of our democracy is to assure every American an equal opportunity to lead a full and productive life. Nixon saw his Comprehensive Health Insurance as an idea whose time had come in America. He saw a need to assure every American financial access to high quality health care.
“Let us build upon the strengths of the medical system we have now, not destroy it.” — RN, 1974
The Beauty in the Beast: The Daily Beast‘s choice of illustrations hints at the hatchet job that follows in the excerpt from Sally Denton’s new book about the 1950 California Senate Race between Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas.
The Daily Beast is offering an exclusive excerpt from The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas — a new book by Sally Denton about the 1950 California Senate race.
Richard Nixon —the just-post-Hiss-case young 12th District congressman— ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas — the Broadway-and-movie-star-turned 14th District congresswoman. The result was a shellacking —59.23% to 40.76%— that has ever since been the source of many misunderstandings — many of them fueled by still-lingering animosities.
And, at least on the basis of this Beastly excerpt, few of these misunderstandings will be illuminated, much less put to rest, by this new book.
That said, excerpts are purposely chosen to pique interest and create controversy, so I will withhold judgment until I’m able to check out the book itself. But, because many readers won’t get beyond the excerpts, at least a few words may be in order at this early point.
Ms. Denton’s tone is tendentious and perfervid — perhaps reflecting her time as an investigative reporter for Jack Anderson. She writes that “In a carefully orchestrated whispering campaign of smear, fear, and innuendo that would go down in American history as the dirtiest ever—while also becoming the model for the next half-century and beyond—Nixon exploited America’s xenophobic suspicions and reflexive chauvinism with devastating consequences.” Douglas, on the other hand, was “the Democratic Party’s bright and shining hope—rich, smart, and charismatic—who, as one of the first women in the U.S. Senate, would be a powerful voice for an enlightened social policy.”
I can’t help thinking that 256 pages of this is going to be very hard going. It appears to be history of the Brodie-Morris-Perlstein school — over written and under researched. And, indeed, it turns out that Roger Morris was Ms. Denton’s collaborator on her earlier history of Las Vegas.
The Beast excerpt condemns the Nixon campaign’s “Pink Sheet” (“implying that she was a communist, ‘hinting darkly at secret ties,’ as one historian put it”) without noting that it had been taken verbatim from an ad run by one of Douglas’ Democratic opponents in the primary campaign. No doubt the book will deal with this inconvenient truth at some length.
In the mid-1970s, while researching President Nixon’s memoirs, I had the opportunity to interview Paul Ziffren, the legendary Los Angeles lawyer and power broker who had managed the 1950 Douglas campaign. He told me that, while there had been rough moments, they occurred on both sides. Her dismissal of Nixon as a “pipsqueak,” and her talk about “the backwash of Republican young men in dark shirts” were no less provocative than some flyers printed on pink paper stock — only less credible and, therefore, less effective. And even Fawn Brodie admitted that Douglas got caught misrepresenting Nixon’s record.
In 1977 Jimmy Roosevelt —FDR’s eldest son, who stood in for Douglas when she decided to stay in Washington rather than face Nixon in the first of their three scheduled public debates— told me that her crushing defeat was the result of her high handed manner and badly run campaign.
7 November 1950: Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas emerges from the voting booth after casting her ballot in the California Senate race.
Ms. Denton charges that during the campaign Nixon called Mrs. Douglas —who was married to movie star Melvyn Douglas, whose given name was Melvyn Hesselberg— “Mrs Hesselberg.”
This ugly charge has become uncritically accepted as part of the ’50 campaign lore. But the first time it appeared was forty-two years after the event, in a singly-sourced statement attributed to a Douglas supporter in Greg Mitchell’s 1992 book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. On page 139 he wrote:
Occasionally, in public appearances, Nixon himself would “slip” and refer to his opponent as Helen Hesselberg, before correcting himself.
Mr. Mitchell provides four footnotes for page 139 — but none of them pins down this serious new claim. He revisits the story on page 239 and this time the footnote attributes it to an individual identified in the text as “Douglas backer Jean Sieroty.”
No contemporary press accounts or analyses mention any such a statement(s). Nor did Mrs. Douglas include it in her discussion of campaign excesses in her memoirs. Neither Professor Brodie nor Mr. Morris, whose books preceded Mr. Mitchell’s, claim that Nixon ever said those words; and Mr. Morris writes at length about some of the ugly ambient anti-semitism that unquestionably surrounded the campaign. Presumably Mr. Ziffren and Mr. Roosevelt would have remembered any Nixon references to “Mrs. Hesselberg.” It will be interesting to see Ms. Denton’s sourcing for this story.
I suspect that this “Mrs. Hesselberg” charge is in the same category as the even more widely accepted claim that Nixon said that his opponent was “pink right down to her underwear.”
Although many accounts make it sound as if this was a recurring punchline of Nixon’s campaign rhetoric, there is no record of his ever having made what would have been a highly salacious (and therefore highly notable) remark at that time. The actual claim was that he had used it at a closed-door meeting with fat cats. But that was only based on a single second hand report only quoted several years later in an article in The New Republic. (That was the source Mrs. Douglas cited for the claim in her memoirs.)
The considerably post-facto and uncorroborated second-hand reports of a “Douglas backer” and a New Republic reporter are mighty thin reeds on which to hang such serious charges in any work of history that wants to be taken seriously.
Mrs. Douglas was an attractive candidate but a difficult colleague and a bad campaigner. To put it mildly, her own party was less than enthusiastically behind her. The incumbent Democratic Senator (against whom she had run in the primary before his health required him to vacate the seat) made radio ads endorsing Nixon. Congressman John F. Kennedy famously personally delivered a $1000 check from his father for the Nixon campaign. (In her book, Ms. Denton apparently inflates the amount to $150,000 — which is either an example of gross negligence or a really embarrassing typo.) And President Truman, whose cordial dislike for Douglas was ill-concealed, refused to campaign for her; his lukewarm endorsement, only issued on the eve of the election, was far too little far too late.
Last year —on the occasion of the opening in Los Angeles of a new play called Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas— I wrote here at some length about some of these and other Nixon-Douglas disputes.
The 1950 California Senate race needs and deserves a serious, well-researched, and objective study. Alas, it appears that Ms. Denton’s book isn’t going to change that situation. In the meantime, anyone who wants to understand what really happened should consult the relevant chapters in Irwin F. Gellman’s rigorously researched and scrupulously reported 1999 book The Contender: Richard Nixon: The Congress Years, 1946-1952.
7 November 1950: Richard and Pat Nixon are joined by two-year-old daughter Julie at the polling place in Los Angeles.