How Richard Nixon Became “Tricky Dick”

Former President Richard Nixon was famously labeled “Tricky Dick.”

According to one Internet site, the Yorba Linda native earned the nickname for his actions while president involving the Watergate break-in and subsequent investigations.

Others suggest it was coined by the John Kennedy campaign in 1960, which did incorporate the phrase as well as posters of a devious looking Nixon with the caption, “Would You Buy a Used Car from This Man?”

The alliterative ‘Tricky Dick” moniker was 10 years old by the time Kennedy’s team took the nickname national.

Its origin is found in Nixon’s 1950 race against Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas for a California U.S. Senate seat.

Douglas, a New Deal Democrat, was a Broadway star in the 1920s married to actor Melyvn Douglas.

A protégé of Eleanor Roosevelt, Douglas was the first Democratic woman California sent to Congress and was in her third term when she ran for the Senate.

In her first term, she scored a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and engaged in a domestic affair with Lyndon Johnson, according to Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate?.

One of Douglas’ campaign innovations in her Senate race was the use of a helicopter to barnstorm California. The idea came from Johnson who used a helicopter in his 1948 race.

When Douglas landed in San Rafael, her local organizer Dick Tuck — who would get in some licks on Nixon in later decades — labeled it the “Helencopter.”

The Nxon-Douglas campaign took place during the height of the Red baiting made so infamous by Sen. Joe McCarthy.

While anti-communist, Douglas had ties to Hollywood actors who allegedly had engaged in Communist activities.

Nixon, though smart enough too keep distance between himself and the unpredictable McCarthy, made the threat of domestic communist infiltration central to his campaign.

Douglas was branded, “pink shading to deep red” and “decidedly pink.”

Her voting record – in a flyer printed in red ink — linked Douglas to the far left Rep. Vito Marcantonio of New York City, who was linked to the Communist Party.

The nickname that stuck was “The Pink Lady.”

Nixon didn’t give her the nickname, though.

Douglas’ Democratic primary opponent Manchester Boddy did.

Boddy was the publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News who Sheridan Downey, the incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator, endorsed when he decided not to seek re-election in the face of Douglas’ challenge.

Boddy had no previous political experience. His campaign slogan was “Manchester Boddy, The Democrat Every Body Wants.”

In 1950, California candidates could cross-file, seeking nomination on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. That’s what Nixon did.

And while he knew Douglas would win the Democratic primary he tried to woo Democrats who he hoped would voter for him in the November election against the “too left” Douglas.

Nixon’s campaign sent 68,500 leaflets to registered Democrats in envelopes emblazoned with the words “AS ONE DEMOCRAT TO ANOTHER!”

According to the well-researched Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady by Greg Mitchell:

“The campaign material failed to disclose his party affiliation, referring to him simply as Congressman Nixon, ‘The Man Who Broke the (Alger) Hiss- (Whittaker) Chambers Espionage Case.’ One photograph showed the 37-year-old candidate in his living room on Honeysuckle Lane in Whittier entertaining his wife, Pat, and his two young daughters with a puppet.”

Unfortunately, one of the recipients of the mailer was Will Rogers, Jr., son of the beloved humorist and Democratic nominee for Senate in 1946.

Rogers forwarded the mailer to Boddy.

The night before the primary, Boddy’s paper ran a picture of the “viciously false circular.”

Again from Mitchell:

“The same day, a full-page advertisement sponsored by a Democratic committee appeared in several papers under the heading ‘WARNING TO ALL DEMOCRATS.’ It showed a cartoon Nixon emerging from a barn, holding a pitchfork full of hay labeled ‘Campaign Trickery’ that he intended to feed to a Democratic donkey. ‘What manner of candidate is this,’ the copy read, ‘who will use the United States mail in an attempt to delude Democrats into believing he is one of them?’ “

And, the ad encouraged:

“Look at `Tricky Dick’ Nixon’s Republican Record.”

Nixon won the GOP primary.

Douglas’ attacks against him, which weren’t exactly softball pitches, failed to keep him from winning the general election by 700,000 votes.

Among other things Douglas called Nixon a “demagogue” who was selling “fear and….nice, unadulterated fascism.” 

Her campaign literature called Nixon a “Peewee trying to frighten people so that they are too afraid to turn out the lights.” 

And she referred to “the backwash of Republican young men in dark shirts” which in 1950 couldn’t help but conjure images of Hitler’s brown shirts.

Douglas campaigned for Kennedy in 1960 and McGovern in 1972 as well as calling for Nixon’s ouster in the wake the Watergate scandal.

She died at 79 on June 28,1980 of breast and lung cancer.



Filed under: California History


  1. Once again Greg you have written a great piece! I find these little history lessons so much more enjoyable than all of he history classes I took in school. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Comment by Management Slug — 11.24.2011 @ 9:15 am

  2. Thanks for the history. I’ve always wondered where the nickname came from. Even I am too young to remember the 1950 race (although I do remember my dad being really burned at Nixon’s campaign and his support for Douglas).

    Comment by John McKibben — 11.24.2011 @ 10:14 am

  3. wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatttttttttttttttt?????????????????????????

    Comment by a — 10.22.2014 @ 8:52 am

  4. wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatttttttttttttttt?????????????????????????sdgkgadjlgfasjkhdgajkfhadvghfrukdgjdhgfiruehuafyruigfihkhfdzcbhjgvlb

    Comment by awfadga — 10.22.2014 @ 8:53 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment