What if Nixon Had Lost?
Sixty years ago, Steve Zetterberg '38 lost to Richard Nixon in the local
Democratic (yes, Democratic) primary for U.S. Congress. Could he have
won? And what if he had?
By Mark Kendall
There is something strangely reassuring in the story of how Steve Zetterberg ’38 lost to Republican Richard Nixon in the
Democratic congressional primary 60 years ago this June. This odd tale shows politics was just as screwy back then and that we the voters were just as clueless as we are today. And the media? What a joke. Nixon’s camp sent out mailers to “Fellow Democrats” and, instead of calling them on it, the press aided him in pulling off the charade.
But even if this long-ago campaign seems almost comical now, a darker truth lurks in this bit of history. It’s the knowledge that Nixon’s penchant for political chicanery would only escalate and, in time, rattle the public’s confidence in our system of government. And the Tricky Dick mischief started on Pomona College’s home turf.
Claremont formed the eastern edge of Nixon’s 1940s political spawning ground, the 12th Congressional District stretching across the San Gabriel Valley, a citrus-scented paradise soon to be lost as post-war boom towns gained ground on the groves. The region’s front-porch view of Nixon’s political beginnings brings home a tantalizing question: What if Zetterberg had won? Or, more pointedly, what if Nixon’s dirty-as-a-smudge-pot politics had been stopped early on?
“As soon as someone hears that I ran against Nixon in ’48, without knowing me at all—I might be the worst heel they ever know—they will say, ‘Why didn’t you win?’ … putting a heavy burden of blame on me,’’ said Zetterberg in an oral history interview conducted in 1976, when post-Watergate scorn for the ex-president was still at its peak. “And that says something about Nixon because these are people who don’t even know me.”
Other than a few old-time politicos, though, people nowadays don’t know of Zetterberg’s bit role in the Nixon saga. Even in the ever-growing thicket of Nixon biographies, the ’48 race has been largely overshadowed by the seminal contest two years earlier that first brought Nixon into the public eye—and brought on his reputation for deceit.
FOR NIXON, TEMPTATION arrived via airmail in September 1945. A local Republican organizer sent a letter back East wooing the driven young naval officer to return home to run for Congress in the district that included his hometown of Whittier. As recounted in Roger Morris’s
Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, other prospects had balked at attempting to push out the idealistic Democratic incumbent, New Dealer Jerry Voorhis, who had held the seat for a decade. Nixon reached for the orange and bit.
In his slashing 1946 campaign, Nixon falsely portrayed the former socialist (but staunchly anti-communist) Voorhis as a red sympathizer. Nixon tied Voorhis to a “communist-dominated” political action committee of the Congress of Industrial Organizations—though Voorhis, in truth, had no connection to the PAC. As Election Day neared, Nixon’s ever-changing ads claimed Voorhis had voted in sync with the PAC 43 out of 46 times, then 143 out of 146, then 43 out of 43, a scan through old issues of the
Pomona Progress-Bulletin reveals. And whatever their true number, those votes often were on issues such as the school lunch program—hardly the stuff of commie conspiracy. No matter. As Voorhis would later write in
The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon: “Mr. Nixon had to win. Nothing else would do at all.”
The guilt-by-association approach was less than subtle in another Nixon newspaper ad: “On Oct. 20, the Moscow radio broadcast an appeal to American voters to support the C.I.O.-P.A.C. slate. Jerry Voorhis was endorsed by P.A.C. on April 16 (Bulletin No. 9) Let’s elect Nixon, a representative of ALL the people.”
Voorhis was well-regarded in D.C., but the leftward congressman also was out of sync with his district politically—and unprepared for the assault he faced from Nixon. He agreed to a series of debates, including a packed event in Bridges Auditorium on the Pomona campus, and the crafty Nixon put the congressman on the defensive again and again over the PAC issue. In a year where Republicans would ride post-war domestic turmoil to take both houses of Congress, Nixon dislodged Voorhis in a landslide win. “It was a bitter experience for my father,” said Jerry L. Voorhis, the late congressman’s son, now retired and living in Claremont. “He never really got over it.”
DISARRAY FOLLOWED for the Democrats of the 12th District. As the 1948 primary approached, Steve Zetterberg, an upstart Claremont attorney and party activist who had worked for Voorhis’ reelection, was among a group charged with convincing the defeated Voorhis to run against Nixon again. Voorhis and other potential candidates declined, and the group ventually turned to Zetterberg himself as the filing deadline loomed. He reluctantly accepted.
Zetterberg ran into an immediate problem: Nixon was running as a Democrat and a Republican in the primaries in an attempt to knock out any foes before the general election.
Cross-filing, as they called it, was standard operating procedure for California politicians at the time. The quirky system allowing candidates to run in other parties’ primaries had been pushed through early in the 20th century by reform-minded Gov. Hiram Johnson as a way to weaken the power of party bosses. But the reform had unintended consequences, rewarding incumbents with name recognition. “The practical result of cross-filing over time was to create a single incumbent’s party in which Republicans and a few powerful newspaper publishers called the shots,’’ writes journalist Lou Cannon in
Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. (The disadvantaged Dems weren’t able to kill cross-filing until the ’50s.)
To make matters worse for Zetterberg, the incumbent-friendly system placed Nixon’s name at the top of the Democratic ballot, labeled only as the incumbent, with his two opponents rotating in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots on different ballots. (Zetterberg, a foe of the cross-filing practice, ran only as a Democrat.)
With scant campaign cash, Zetterberg’s effort consisted largely of firing off promotional copy to the papers and canvassing neighborhoods in search of votes. For the publicity, he also worked calling square dances. “There was kind of a fad going on in this area with square dancing,” said Zetterberg, adding that he was making inroads with the down-home do-si-do approach.
But Nixon had been doing some fancy footwork of his own, wooing Zetterberg’s Democratic base. Nixon’s campaign went so far as to send out mailers addressed to “Fellow Democrats” accompanied by Nixon’s picture, and signed in smaller type by J.B. Blue of “Democrats for Nixon.”
The party-blurring effort carried into media as well. “Fellow Democrats: We ask you to vote for the reelection of our congressman,’’ reads one
Claremont Courier ad from the “Democratic Nixon for Congress Committee.” “His voting record is progressive and he is not a fence-straddler—you always know where he stands.”
Door-knocking revealed the extent of Zetterberg’s challenge in a region with a constant flow of new arrivals. “Our major problem was one of ignorance of people who had just moved into the district,’’ said Zetterberg in a March interview with
PCM. “You’d go out and see a guy watering his lawn … they’d say ‘Oh, no, we’ve got a Democrat here running, Richard Nixon.’ We kept running into that all the time.”
The district’s overwhelmingly Republican newspapers didn’t exactly strive to set the record straight, according to Zetterberg. They often would identify Nixon only as the area’s congressman, without mentioning party affiliation, on their news pages.
Case in point: When Nixon flew home from Washington for a quick campaign rally shortly before the primary, he was rewarded with a prominently placed article in the
Pomona Progress-Bulletin that reads like a press release about his anti-communist work. There’s no mention of his party, only saying that “he seeks both Republican and Democratic nominations for reelection.” Anti-Nixon pamphleteers outside the rally are mentioned only in the context of having “failed to disturb Nixon and constituents of both major parties from thruout the 12th district who assembled … to hear his personal report on affairs in Washington.”
Puff press wasn’t Nixon’s only advantage. In his thorough The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, historian Irwin Gellman points to Zetterberg’s lack of adequate financial support from the Democratic Party and Voorhis’s late decision against running as additional factors helping the incumbent.
Nixon also avoided Voorhis’s previous debate mistake by steering clear of engaging Zetterberg (who would never meet Nixon face to face). The congressman instead took an above-it-all approach, focusing on his Washington duties.
It worked. Come primary day, Nixon succeeded in knocking Zetterberg out of the race, beating him in the Democratic race by 21,411 votes to 16,808. “I think the thing that put him over was ‘Dear Fellow Democrat,’’’ said Zetterberg. The November general election would be a coronation.
Nixon would go on to win a U.S. Senate seat two years later in his famously contentious race against actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, then the vice presidential slot on the Eisenhower ticket in ’52 and ’56 before narrowly losing to John F. Kennedy for the big job four years later.
He would be back, narrowly winning the presidency in 1968, followed four years later with a huge reelection landslide. He made history by agreeing to a truce deal with North Vietnam and by opening the way to U.S. ties with China. Then his role in covering up the Watergate scandal was exposed—along with other abuses of power—and he chose to resign from the presidency in August 1974 rather than face impeachment, ending what his successor, Gerald Ford, called “our long national nightmare.”
GIVEN THAT HEAVY HISTORY, it’s reasonable to wonder what would have happened if Zetterberg had won, and managed to knock Nixon out of his rapidly rising political trajectory. Was there any chance Nixon could be beaten?
Intriguingly, Nixon himself may have had doubts about his ’48 re-election prospects. Edwin P. Hoyt’s
The Nixons: An American Family offers this tidbit: “That winter Richard Nixon was concerned about his political future because he had not spent much time in the district … some Republicans in his district told him flatly they did not think he could win the nomination in a primary election.”
Hoyt, like other biographers, also notes that Nixon was concerned the presidential campaign of ’48 would suck up all the attention, leaving congressional candidates like him to fend for themselves. And it is true that the national political environment was quite different from two years earlier, when Republicans rode the tide into office nationwide. In ’48, President Harry Truman would squeak by in perhaps the greatest electoral upset in U.S. history, and his fellow Democrats would regain seats in Congress.
Historians are split over the scope of Nixon’s win in the ’48 Democratic primary:
Stephen Ambrose in Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962 calls it a “dazzling display of political strength. The Democrats had carried the 12th District in five straight elections through 1944. Now, four years later, they could not even beat Nixon in their own primary. This was voter approval with a vengeance.”
But Morris in The Rise of An American Politician writes that “the victory was not that impressive. More than half the California congressional incumbents gained reelection by cross-filing in the 1948 primary. Both Republicans and Democrats in Los Angeles and adjacent counties won on the other ticket by larger proportions than the well-publicized representative from the twelfth.”
For his part, Zetterberg has been cautious on the topic of whether he could have beat Nixon, if, say, cross-filing was forbidden, telling
PCM: “That sounds like a question requiring a philosophical answer. …” In an earlier oral history interview, however, he does lament getting a late start on the campaign: “You say, ‘well, what if we’d started earlier?’ And that’s kind of a sad thing to contemplate.”
Absolution from all the “what ifs” of that long-ago campaign may come from none other than Jerry L. Voorhis, the late congressman’s son, who formerly taught at Cal Poly Pomona and has written extensively on the district’s politics during the ’40s. He noted that Truman barely carried California and had no real coattails here, so Zetterberg couldn’t have expected much of a boost even if he had made it to the general election.
More importantly, Voorhis pointed out that the district’s demographics were rapidly changing. Midwesterners, many of them taking defense jobs, were moving into the area in larger numbers, and the voter rolls were shifting Republican while the Democrats’ agricultural base was waning. The bottom line: “It would have been very difficult’’ for any Democrat to beat Nixon, said Voorhis, who thinks his father was wise not to run again.
ZETTERBERG, it turns out, would never be elected to public office. But he would become a prominent local attorney, stay active in Democratic politics and raise four children with his wife, Connie. He would serve on state boards for Gov. Pat Brown in the ’60s and represent his party on radio, TV and in public appearances. And he would earn a small but unstained place in history for his run against Nixon: Just recently, a video crew from the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum captured his tales of the ’48 race.
During an interview in his Claremont home, Zetterberg sits across from a thicket of family photos—he has nine grandchildren—and looks out at his tree-shaded back lawn on a sun-dappled spring day. At 91, Zetterberg’s body is frail, but he remains an engaged, good-humored presence in conversation, even making a crack about death. Contrast this with the famously tortured Nixon, and you have to wonder.
Maybe Zetterberg did win.