The "dirty tricks" with which Richard Nixon would forever be associated got their first real workout more than 20 years before Watergate. That was in 1950, when he ran for U.S. senator from California against the actress turned progressive Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. Through relentless guilt-by-association tactics, Nixon painted his earnest but hapless opponent as not merely soft on but downright cozy with Communism—"Pink right down to her underwear," went the crippling campaign slogan. It was no contest: Nixon, already an anticommunist hero for his congressional investigation of the Hiss-Chambers espionage case, won in a landslide.
Greg Mitchell's admirably dispassionate account of this free-for-all is enriched by his attention to its historical context. He sets the stage deftly when describing the political landscape of postwar California and the difficulties of women in Congress. More often, though, he simply dumps in pages of information on such familiar background as the Korean conflict and loyalty oaths, while failing to fully illuminate how they colored the Senate election campaign. Ultimately it was Douglas who wrote of Nixon in her autobiography what the author might have seen more clearly: "A man ran for Senate who wanted to get there, and didn't care how." (Random House, $25)