Bill, a friend of Man Ray, the avant-garde artist who worked in Hollywood from 1940 to 1951, moved east and became a painter and a contemporary art collector. In the mid ’50s, he sued Jim to liquidate the Copley empire; after a bitter legal battle, the permanently estranged brothers reached an agreement to buy Bill out of the company. Bill’s departure from the scene, coupled with the postwar demise of Clinton McKinnon’s Daily Journal, meant that Jim was now freer than ever to impose his will on San Diego and its politics.
As Jim began to consolidate his hold on the Copley Press, the nation’s politics were veering sharply to the right. The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the end of his New Deal, coupled with the defeat in 1947 of U.S.-backed Chiang Kai-shek by the Communist Chinese forces of Mao Zedong, gave Republicans the upper hand. The GOP blamed Harry Truman and the Democrats for “losing China” and claimed that Communist spies had infiltrated every level of the federal government.
In 1946, 130 or so miles north of San Diego, a young Navy veteran named Richard M. Nixon ran for Congress from a semirural district centered in Yorba Linda. He had been handpicked by the “Candidate and Fact Finding Committee,” a group of Republican businessmen, to take on incumbent Jerry Voorhis, a New Deal Democrat who had gotten his first taste of politics as a volunteer in the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair. Nixon ousted Voorhis and four years later ran for U.S. Senate.
He beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Helen Gahagan Douglas, calling her “pink right down to her underwear.” Two years after that, Nixon was elected vice president. It was a stunningly rapid rise to power. Copley was not a member of Nixon’s innermost circle, but his zeal and willingness to put the services of his newspaper empire at Nixon’s disposal caught the attention of the future president. Their go-between was Herbert G. Klein, a former sports editor of the Daily Trojan, the student newspaper of the University of Southern California, his alma mater.
Klein first signed on with the Copley Press as a $13-a-week copyboy at the Alhambra Post-Advocate. He was the paper’s news editor when he first met Nixon at the outset of his 1946 congressional campaign. In each of Nixon’s subsequent campaigns, Klein was given a leave of absence by Jim Copley to serve as Nixon’s publicist and press secretary.
“The newspaper paid Klein’s salary during the campaign,” writes Nixon scholar Irwin F. Gellman in The Contender, a 1999 chronicle of Nixon’s eight years in Congress. When the campaign was over, Klein would return directly to his editorial duties for Copley. It was only a convenient fiction, of course; the arrangement meant that there was never any doubt about how the Copley papers felt about Richard Nixon or how far they were willing to slant the news for his benefit. It was to become a hallowed Copley tradition.
Over the years, Nixon repeatedly wrote to Copley expressing his gratitude; the correspondence is now in the National Archives.
“Dear Jim,” began one letter from then-Vice President Nixon to Copley, dated November 19, 1954, following the Congressional midterm elections. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the wonderful job the Copley papers did for our cause in the last campaign. Your Washington staff, as always, just couldn’t have been more cooperative.
“I saw the San Diego paper the morning after I spoke there and I could hardly believe my eyes when I noted the extent of the coverage. No wonder San Diego was one of the bright spots in the whole California picture.”
In September 1959, upon his return from the famous Moscow “kitchen debate” with Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Nixon wrote, “Dear Jim: The complete and generous coverage by the Copley Press both editorially and in the news columns was most gratifying, I can assure you.”
Copley took a proprietary interest in Nixon’s career, using his editor Klein — embedded in the campaign, as always during political season — to relay suggestions and ideas to the candidate. After Nixon’s first televised debate with John F. Kennedy in September 1960, Copley fired off a message to Klein: “As a personal letter to you, I wish to say that I think Dick came out second best in the ‘debate’ last night. I think the cameras played up Kennedy. Kennedy looked fresher; Dick looked tired, and I thought it was a shame that his suit did not appear too well on the set that I was looking at.
“Also, Kennedy’s expression seemed to indicate that he was ready for anything, whereas Dick’s expression was very studious, but to the point where it looked almost like he was mad or disturbed. I certainly hope we can do better in future exchanges.”
Copley wrote Nixon himself a few days later: “Dear Dick: As you know, I am going to do everything possible through the Copley Newspapers to assist you in your campaign. I feel so vehemently that we need you as the next President of the United States.
“I wish you Godspeed, and am rooting for your election in November. Please do not hesitate to call on my organization if we can help you.”
Nixon responded the next month: “The all-out assistance you are giving us — ranging from the loan of Herb Klein and [San Diego Union reporter] Peter Kaye to the help on the San Diego programs — is most gratifying. I only wish we had more like you!” Copley was proud of his contribution, later noting, “In 1960, California went for Nixon by 23,000 votes and an interesting comment on that is that San Diego gave him a margin of 53,000.”
There have been allegations that Copley’s assistance was not limited to Nixon’s campaigns. In December 1977, writers Joe Trento, a San Diego freelancer, and Dave Roman wrote a piece for Penthouse magazine in which they accused Copley of collaborating with the Central Intelligence Agency during the Eisenhower administration, using the Copley News Service and its reporters as fronts for intelligence gathering.