The Tragedy of William Knowland

By Ray Hill
William Fife Knowland seemingly had everything; born into a wealthy and powerful family, he eventually found himself in the United States Senate representing California.  Rising to become the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, Bill Knowland aspired to the presidency.  It was Knowland’s dreams of the White House that brought his political career crashing down with a bone-crunching finality.  Bill Knowland divorced his wife and married a much younger woman who brought him everything but happiness.  Quite the contrary, Knowland’s second wife brought him to ruin, along with whatever personal demons bedeviled him inside his own mind.

Not every successful politician is a golden-throated orator; quite to the contrary, some very successful politicians are wretched speakers.  One such example was Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who was a poor public speaker, yet one of the best retail politicians of his time.  No less a political authority than Lyndon B. Johnson once described Kefauver as “the greatest campaigner of them all.”  Some who were marvelous speakers had cold and forbidding personalities and didn’t mix well with people.

A big, bluff man with no sense of humor whatsoever, William F. Knowland was unsuited to politics and political life.  Knowland was frequently uncomfortable and awkward around other people.  Knowland was not a remarkable orator, nor was he a good mixer.  Bill Knowland achieved what he did in politics through the circumstance of birth and plain old hard work.

Knowland’s father, Joseph, had served for more than a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives before giving up his seat to run for a seat in the United States Senate in 1914.  Joe Knowland became the GOP nominee but lost in a three-way race to Democrat James Phelan.  Joseph R. Knowland returned to his home in Oakland, California, where he had numerous business interests and in 1915, became the owner, publisher and editor of the Oakland Tribune.  Knowland engaged in a protracted legal battle with Mrs. Hermina Dargie, the widow of the previous owner of the Tribune.  Joe Knowland built the Tribune Tower, which housed his newspaper and became one of the landmarks of the City of Oakland.  It was Joseph R. Knowland who was responsible for his son Bill’s political career.  Joe Knowland, through his own experience and knowledge, as well as his daily newspaper, remained a power in California politics.  When longtime U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson died suddenly on August 6, 1945 (the same day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan), GOP Governor Earl Warren offered to appoint Joe Knowland to the Senate.  The idea of appointing Joe Knowland to the vacancy caused by the death of Senator Johnson was highly logical, as Knowland had been Governor Warren’s political mentor.  Furthermore, Knowland was 72 years old and would be a perfect placeholder until voters selected a new U.S. senator in 1946.  Joe Knowland suggested Warren appoint someone who could run and win the 1946 election and gain seniority for the State of California: his son, William.  On August 14, 1945, Governor Earl Warren appointed William F. Knowland to the United States Senate.

Knowland was then serving in the Army in Europe.  Knowland’s wife, Helen, had attempted to telephone the new senator with the news of his appointment by placing a transatlantic telephone call.  Military censors tersely told Helen Knowland the information was “not essential government business” and refused to forward her call to her husband.  Bill Knowland found out he had been appointed to the United States Senate through the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.  Military brass thought it the better part of wisdom to discharge the senator so that he could go home and take the oath of office.  Knowland was sworn in as the newest member of the United States Senate on September 6, 1945; it was the same day the Senate officially adjourned to honor the memory of the late Senator Hiram Johnson.  Knowland served and was a candidate to succeed himself in the 1946 election.  The California ballot featured two elections for the United States Senate; one being a special election to serve out the remainder of Hiram Johnson’s term, which would run from November through January 3, 1947.  The second would commence on January 3, 1947, and run for the full six-year term.  Knowland faced a credible challenger in Democrat Will Rogers Jr., son of the famed comedian, philosopher and film star.  Knowland won both elections decisively.

Knowland tended to his senatorial duties and the interests of California and began to make a name for himself as a critic of the Truman Administration.  Bill Knowland was one of the more prominent members of what was then called the “China Lobby,” which was the name given to the various groups who advocated for American assistance to the Republic of China by the press.  With the defeat of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and his retreat with Nationalist forces to the island of Taiwan, the China Lobby excoriated President Harry Truman and his administration for the loss of mainland China to communism.  From that point on, the China Lobby focused itself upon the support of Chiang and Taiwan.  The Korean War, which the Chinese entered against the United States, which was supporting its ally South Korea against the aggression of North Korean communist forces, further diminished the popularity of the Truman Administration, which reached a low point shortly before the 1952 elections.  By 1952, Senator Knowland had entrenched himself enough to win a resounding reelection.  The Golden State allowed candidates to “cross file,” meaning a Democrat could also file to run inside the Republican primary and vice versa.  Knowland was popular enough to win both the nomination of his own Republican Party, but also the Democratic primary as well.  What made it all the more astonishing is the Democrats had a credible candidate in Congressman Clinton D. McKinnon.  While McKinnon polled 633,556 votes (a third candidate polled 140,406 votes), Senator Knowland won 966,861 votes to win the Democratic primary.  That was in addition to the 1,341,170 votes Knowland won in his own Republican primary.  By contrast, Clinton McKinnon won only 140,571 votes in the Republican primary, which was less than 10% of the ballots cast.  It was the high point of William F. Knowland’s political career.  The senator won the general election with quite nearly 88% of the vote.

1952 was a pivotal year for Bill Knowland.  The Republican presidential nomination that year was a bitter fight between Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio and General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Taft, “Mr. Republican,” was making what was likely to be his last bid for the GOP presidential nomination after failing in 1940 and 1948.  Taft had the hearts of a majority of the delegates, if not their heads, while many Republicans simply did not believe the Ohioan could win the general election.  Few doubted the electability of Eisenhower, who very well might have been the most popular man in the country at the time.  Taft, a man of towering intellect and great ability, was colorless by comparison with “Ike” and his famous and infectious grin.  Governor Earl Warren, who had been the GOP vice presidential candidate in 1948, was a favorite son candidate.  Officially, the California delegation was committed to Governor Warren and Knowland was steadfast in his support of his political patron.  Less committed was California’s junior United States senator, Richard Nixon, who saw the opportunity to become the GOP vice presidential candidate on a ticket with Eisenhower.  Knowland was reputedly offered the vice presidential nomination by Taft, but Knowland resiste d whatever temptation there might be on his part to remain loyal to Warren.

Nixon claimed to remain true to Warren, but there were delegates from the Golden State who believed there was a chance to win after twenty years of having been shut out of the presidency, who were growing restive to a commitment to a candidate who was clearly not going anywhere.  Richard Nixon’s political instincts were among the best there were at the time, including those of Bill Knowland.  Eisenhower won the GOP presidential nomination and selected Richard Nixon as his running mate.  The Eisenhower-Nixon ticket fared better than any GOP ticket since Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign.  Eisenhower and Nixon managed to carry several border and southern states, including Tennessee and Texas.

William F. Knowland watched as Richard Nixon, who had been in the Senate since 1951, took the oath of office as vice president of the United States.  Knowland did convince President Eisenhower to appoint Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, an appointment Ike later called the worst mistake of his presidency.

Eisenhower and Nixon carried both houses of Congress with them, and Bob Taft became the Senate Majority Leader.  Within months, Taft became seriously ill and was diagnosed with cancer.  Taft skipped over his deputy, Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, and designated Bill Knowland as the Acting Leader.  “Mr. Republican” died and Knowland was promptly made Majority Leader after having been anointed by Taft.

The narrow majority enjoyed by the Republicans slipped in 1954 and Lyndon Johnson became Majority Leader.  Highly conservative, Bill Knowland oftentimes found himself in opposition to the Eisenhower Administration’s proposals.  Critics noted it was frequently Lyndon Johnson who passed President Eisenhower’s legislation through the Senate while Senator Knowland opposed them.  It was also around this time that Bill Knowland’s personal life began to unravel.  Both he and his wife were having love affairs; at least according to his biographers, Gayle B. Montgomery and James W. Johnson.  In their excellent biography of Knowland, “One Step From the White House: The Rise and Fall of William F. Knowland,” the authors relate Helen Knowland was having an affair with Blair Moody, a reporter who was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1951 after the death of Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg.  At some point, the authors wrote, Bill Knowland began having an affair with Ruth Moody, wife of Blair Moody.

When Earl Warren resigned from the governorship of California to accept appointment as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Lieutenant Governor Goodwin Knight succeeded him.  Knight was elected to a full term of his own in 1954 and proved to be a highly popular chief executive.  “Goody” Knight was also very friendly to organized labor.  The triumvirate of Richard Nixon, William F. Knowland and Goodwin Knight all had several things in common; they all were Californians, they were all jostling for political preferment and power in the Golden State and they all wanted to be elected president of the United States.

The more Bill Knowland thought about it, the more convinced he became his best chance to become the GOP presidential nominee in 1960 was if he were governor of California.  Knowland believed the governor generally controlled the Golden State delegation to the presidential convention of his political party, and he believed that would give him a big leg up over Richard Nixon.  A bullheaded man, Knowland was hellbent on becoming governor of California from the moment his mind was made up until the night the election results came pouring in from the various counties.  The problem was Goody Knight liked being governor and was not ready to step aside for Bill Knowland.  The senator abruptly announced he would not be a candidate for reelection to the Senate, a race he very likely would have won had he run.  The result was Knowland ran for governor, Goody Knight ran for Knowland’s seat in the U.S. Senate and they both were defeated badly.  Only Richard Nixon remained politically viable.

Helen and Bill Knowland divorced, and Knowland later remarried.  Ann Dickson was much younger and proved to be not only a very difficult person but also a spendthrift.  Knowland’s personal wealth began to melt with Ann Dickson’s spending and the former senator’s worsening addiction to gambling.  Bill Knowland retreated to his country home, haunted perhaps by the past and most certainly overwhelmed by his current circumstances.  Knowland was later found, dead by his own hand.

© 2023 Ray Hill