ALAMEDA HISTORY: William Knowland

ALAMEDA HISTORY: William Knowland

Jim Pruitt and Kate DeWein

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Shakespeare noted the transitory nature of life with these words: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” People anywhere in the world can verify this by remembering the famous and the notorious that walked the same streets that we do. In some parts of the world, these collective memories go back hundreds of years. In Alameda it is more current than that.

Consider three people who lived just two generations ago.

The presidential election year of 1952 brought into Republican Party competition three Californians with ties to Alameda: Governor Earl Warren, Senator Richard Nixon and the senior senator from California, William Knowland. Warren was known to Alamedans from his time as Alameda County District Attorney in the 1930s, during which he prosecuted a series of public corruption cases here. Nixon had been stationed in Alameda briefly during World War II.

This is the story of the least remembered of the trio: Bill Knowland.

In 1908 William “Bill” Knowland was born in Alameda at his parents’ home, a cottage on his grandfather’s large property at the southwest corner of Everett and Lincoln. When he was a year old his family moved to a home on Paru Street near the present-day lagoons (see photograph number 2).

The Knowlands were wealthy and socially prominent. Bill’s grandfather had come to California in the 1850s and made a fortune in lumber, mining, shipping and banking. Bill’s father, Joseph, served several terms in the Congress. In 1915, he bought a majority interest in the Oakland Tribune. (This was a transfer of property heavy with historic symbolism as the seller was Hermenia Peralta Dargie, a widow in the Peralta family, once Californios – descendants of the Spanish settlers who had lived in Mexican California for generations.) Through his newspaper, Joseph Knowland influenced public life in Oakland and the rest of the East Bay for decades.

Bill attended Haight School (see photograph number 3) in the early 1920s; many of the houses he would have passed still stand today. At Haight he met Helen Herrick, and they both went on to Alameda High School (see photographs number 1 and 4). Helen’s mother, Estelle, taught at the high school; according to the Alameda High School yearbook, the Acorn, her subject was “Household Arts.” Bill was student body president and president of the student newspaper, the Oak Leaf which, like the Acorn, retains its name nine decades later. Helen was a class officer in a student cabinet dominated by boys.

Bill and Helen were married shortly after high school. Bill graduated from the University at California, Berkeley in 1929, and by his 20s was a California State Assemblyman. When the U.S. entered World War II, Knowland volunteered for the draft, not seeking any kind of exemption even though he was 34 years old and the father of three children. He entered the Army as a private and subsequently was admitted to Officer Candidate School.

Knowland was in the Army in Germany in 1945 when California’s senior senator, Hiram Johnson, died. Johnson had been the embodiment of the progressive Republican tradition that led to Republican control over state politics for many decades in the first half of the twentieth century. As governor he had successfully pushed for the expansion of democracy by establishing the initiative, referendum and recall processes. He had also tried to alter the state power structure by passing laws allowing candidates to file to run in more than one party.

Governor Warren had a close relationship with Joseph Knowland, who had been instrumental in securing Warren’s appointment as district attorney in 1925 and state Republican chairman in 1932. Although the Knowland family was generally conservative, Warren, in a gesture of both friendship and party loyalty, offered the vacant Senate spot to the senior Knowland, then 72. Joseph declined but asked Warren to appoint his son, Bill. Warren acquiesced and made Major William Knowland a U.S. Senator.

For years, Warren was criticized for making the appointment as a political payoff to the Knowland family for past favors. Even though Earl Warren and Bill Knowland continued to diverge politically, they remained friendly for the rest of their lives.

Upon his appointment, Knowland described himself as a "liberal Republican pointed toward national social programs and business stability and international cooperation based on a non-partisan approach to foreign policy." He brought to foreign affairs an open-minded attitude and had written his wife from Europe: "I do not believe Russia is bent on military conquest of the other European states."

Knowland finished Hiram Johnson’s term and ran for re-election in 1946. His opponent was the son of the legendary actor Will Rogers and Knowland won handily.

Knowland was a liberal for the time on racial issues. In 1946 he supported bills to establish a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (the precursor to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and cloture to stop filibusters on the civil rights bills. Over the objection of Southern Democrats he inserted newspaper reports of lynchings into the Congressional Record. Knowland was the floor manager for the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

He also was willing to challenge the party leadership. Knowland won a 1947 skirmish with his majority leader, Bob Taft, arguing for deficit reduction over tax reduction. Although the amounts seen trivial by today's standards an important principle of budget control was addressed.

"I do not believe that the Congress of the United States will be faced with a more serious problem during the entire period of our service here,” Knowland said at the time. “Certainly it is essential that we maintain a solvent federal government and a sound fiscal policy. The future of the American people is wrapped up in our doing this, for if we fail the entire national economy can be undermined."

He had also developed a strong anti-communism stance that focused on the plight of the nationalist Chinese fighting Mao. He and Helen had visited China and left the city of Chunking in December of 1949 hours before it fell to the Communists. The invading army fired on the Knowlands’ small plane as it took to the air. In 1954 at Knowland’s urging, the United States signed a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan.

In 1952 Knowland won the nomination of both the Democratic and Republican parties in California for re-election to the Senate and by that time, he was a national figure.

The 1952 election took place long before presidential primaries were important. National party conventions were the scene of serious horse trading for the nomination, and Warren and Knowland both went to the Republican convention with concrete goals. Warren hoped to control the California delegation and possibly win the presidential nomination if the two major candidates – Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower – deadlocked. Knowland hoped to be nominated for vice president on a ticket led by either Taft or Ike.

Both Warren and Knowland were outmaneuvered by the 39-year-old Nixon, who favored Eisenhower. Eisenhower was nominated and selected Nixon as his running mate, but the drama of 1952 was not complete.

A few weeks after his selection, a financial scandal looked to bring about Nixon’s removal from the Republican ticket. As Nixon prepared to defend his candidacy in what history calls his “Checkers” speech, Eisenhower surreptitiously summoned Knowland from foreign travel in case he was needed as a replacement running mate. Nixon, of course, survived.

By 1954, Warren was the Chief Justice of the United States, Nixon was the sitting Vice President and Bill Knowland was the Senate majority leader. The events of 1952, however, permanently estranged Warren and Nixon and caused the beginning of a rift between Knowland and Nixon.

Knowland’s years as majority leader and then – when control shifted to the Democrats – as Minority Leader were not without controversy. He voted to oppose the censure of Joseph McCarthy. President Eisenhower grew to disdain Knowland and wrote about him in his diary, “In this case, there seems to be no final answer to the question, ‘How stupid can you get?’” Further, Knowland lacked the legislative skills of the Democrats’ leader, Lyndon Johnson, with whom Eisenhower forged a close relationship.

His personal life was also in trouble. Although sexual affairs were not written about in the newspapers of that era, according to author Ethan Rarick, Knowland was a womanizer and in the 1950s had as a mistress the wife of a colleague, Senator Blair Moody of Michigan. A complicating factor was that Moody and Helen Knowland also had an affair, which had begun when Moody was a journalist working in San Francisco during World War II. That affair ended with Moody’s death in 1954. These details are supported by Gayle B. Montgomery and James W. Johnson in a biography of Knowland which is generally supportive of both Bill and Helen.

In 1949, Helen Knowland wrote a fictional book called Madame Baltimore. Its rather leaden plot focused on a wealthy Washington, D.C. power couple named “Harriet” and “Bob.” Harriet is carrying on an affair with her best friend’s husband and she murders him in a jealous rage.

It is a clumsy narrative and an attempt at a mystery, but similarities between the unhappy first-person protagonist Harriet and Helen Knowland’s own life cannot be overlooked. Harriet views her own husband as dull, stale, and predictable, whereas she states this of her lover: “It was his voice that I waited for, his glance which buoyed me to the skies or sent me into despair.” Helen dedicated the book “To Billy.” Madame Baltimore was not commercially successful – although Moody wrote a very positive review.

After Moody’s death, Helen began to pressure Bill began to leave Washington. It was this pressure that in part led Knowland to leave the Senate and run for governor of California in 1958. His other motive may have been a desire to position himself to run for the presidency in 1960.

At the time this move made sense. A sitting senator had not been nominated for president by either party in decades. Additionally, he may not have been aware of the difficult political situation he would be entering. Whatever the reason for Knowland’s decision, it proved to be catastrophic for him and his party.

California’s progressive Republican governor, Goodwin Knight, had served since Warren went to the high court in 1953 and was planning to run again for governor. Embittered that he would face a conservative opponent in a primary and pressured by Nixon, Knight agreed instead to run for Knowland’s Senate position.

This switch enlivened the Democratic Party, which had a strong candidate for governor, Edmund G. Brown. Brown beat Knowland while Knight also went down in defeat. The election was not close. Brown was propelled not only by voter disaffection with the Republicans’ musical chairs but also by a “right-to-work” initiative that was on the California ballot that year supported by Knowland but vehemently opposed by the unions.

Knowland and his 1958 campaign affected both parties significantly. The 1958 campaign catapulted the onetime Republican, Brown, to state and national prominence. In statewide elections between 1958 and 2010, Brown or one of his two children have been nominated for statewide office by the Democrats 10 times and won seven of those races.

The intra-party bitterness of the 1958 campaign ended the tenure of progressive Republicans and created a conservative base in the party that would help send Ronald Reagan to the governor’s mansion in 1966 and 1970 and the White House in 1980 and 1984. In the years since Reagan, the heirs of Knowland’s gubernatorial campaign disaster of 1958 have come to define the GOP both in California and the United States.

After his loss to Brown, Knowland took the helm of the Oakland Tribune. In many ways he directly contributed to the growth and success of the East Bay.

In the 1960s Knowland pushed for the new stadium for the Oakland Raiders and also helped entice to Oakland the Oakland Athletics, BART headquarters and the state museum to the city. He advocated successfully for an arena at the Coliseum that drew the Warriors away from San Francisco.

But some force that once buoyed him now seemed spent. Worse, Knowland’s personal problems grew. His 45-year marriage to Helen ended in 1972. He remarried but became estranged from his second wife. He gambled heavily, creating huge debt, drawing advances on his salary, cashing checks at Nevada casinos and accumulating credit cards.

His end came during what should have been a time of celebration. On February 21, 1974 the Oakland Tribune observed its 100th anniversary.

"For 100 years this newspaper has participated in the growth of Alameda and Contra Costa counties,” Knowland said at a banquet that night attended by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. “Now as we look into the future it becomes ever more important that newspapers here and in other cities keep the public adequately informed."

But his own future was not to be long: Two days later he shot himself near the Russian River.

“I have lost a friend,” the former Governor Brown responded. Knowland was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

There is little that commemorates the life of William Knowland, either in Alameda or elsewhere in California. The Tribune was sold by the Knowland family in 1977, and Knowland Park is named for his father. Joseph Knowland financed a bench and a plaque in 1951 that commemorated the first transcontinental railroad of the previous century at the northwest corner of Lincoln and Webster, though vandals have defaced it.

Bill Knowland should be remembered for the way in which he helped shape the modern Republican Party and for the anti-communism that he championed. Knowland’s viewpoint prevailed in the end as the U.S. won the Cold War.

Perhaps he should also be remembered for one very important abstraction: the fleeting nature of fame and life itself.

President Lyndon Johnson’s life in many ways showed an eerie similarity to Knowland’s. They were born two months apart and they died 13 months apart. They served together in the Senate from 1949-59, most of that time as the leaders of their parties.

After the presidency, Johnson became a forgotten man. He resumed smoking, knowing that his heart was weak. When he died, the California press reported that Knowland was likely the Californian who worked closest with him.

"I always found he lived up to all his commitments to me,” Knowland said of the former president. “He gave long and distinguished service to his country as a member of the House, a member of the U.S. Senate and as President of the United States. That job, as we all know, is a man-killing job." A year later Knowland was dead too.

The other two Republicans of 1952 with Alameda connections soon also moved from Shakespeare’s “stage,” albeit in different ways. Within months of Knowland’s death, Earl Warren died and Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

About the Authors

Jim Pruitt lives in Alameda and can be reached at Mr. Pruitt holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master of Labor Relations from Michigan State University. He is the Vice President of Labor Relations for the Permanente Federation of Kaiser Permanente and a substitute teacher in Alameda. He attended Haight School from 1957-64.

Kate DeWein lives in Portland, Oregon and can be reached at Ms. DeWein holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Master of Education from the University of Oregon. She is a public school teacher.