1960: The birth of the modern campaign memoir
In 1961, journalist Theodore White ushered in a new genre of nonfiction: the intimate presidential campaign diary. White would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for this book, which, was for the first time, gave Americans an inside look at how presidential campaigns actually operated. Even though most American voters were not so naive to think every aspect of a campaign was entirely noble, this was the first time when people got to see how even the most well-run campaigns often flew by the seat of their pants. Candidates were described with most of their flaws. This book changed the way politics was written about it in the United States.
In addition to the small things, White managed to portray the often highly romanticized 1960 campaign in a larger than life style. The race for the White House is portrayed as one of the most important races ever. White’s book was also helped out by the fact that the 1960 race was one of the closest ever and also featured two of America’s larger than life political figures: John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
The book opens with the Kennedy family nervously following returns on Election Day, 1960. Candidate Kennedy goes to bed around 4 am, but Bobby Kennedy stays up all night monitoring the situation. White obviously picked the right side to sit with on Election Day, because we never do find out what Nixon was doing that night.
Then the book goes back to the start of the campaign. The major Democratic challengers are laid out: Kennedy, who has a well-funded and highly organized campaign, but has to overcome an American prejudice to Catholic candidates; Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, who will try to run a cheaper campaign appealing to liberal Democrats; two-time loser Adlai Stevenson, who hopes that the party will draft him like they did in 1952; Missouri senator Stuart Symington also hoped for a draft because he thought people would be impressed by his intelligence and importance (they were not); Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas also planned on making a late charge for the nomination by sewing up the Southern vote and forcing a deadlock at the convention in Los Angeles.
The Republican nomination battle was not much of one. Nixon was the presumptive nominee. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller made some exploratory speeches, but learned that he didn’t have a lot of support. He and Nixon eventually reached an agreement on platform language.
There were just 16 primaries in 1960 and one of them, the District of Columbia, didn’t even count for a state that had electoral votes at the time. The first primary in New Hampshire was won, as expected, by the New Englander Kennedy, who had only token opposition.
The first big contest between Kennedy and Humphrey would be in Wisconsin. Humphrey hoped that he would have a geographic advantage. But, Kennedy outspent Humphrey and also won large majorities in predominantly Catholic parts of the state. Humphrey decided to go after Kennedy one more time in predominantly Protestant West Virginia.
In West Virginia, Humphrey threw all of dwindling resources into the campaign. He tried a live call-in show, but ended having to field hostile questions and people having to give up the phone because they were on a party line. (Kids, ask your parents what that means. In turn, they can ask their parents). Kennedy won West Virginia and Humphrey dropped out.
Kennedy won all 10 primaries he entered with the balance won by favorite son candidates. At the Convention in L.A., Stevenson supporters made a last stand with large-scale demonstrations of support. As it turned out, Los Angeles was one of the last places in America that was crazy for Adlai Stevenson. Outside of California, Stevenson was considered nothing more than a two-time loser.
It took just one ballot for Kennedy to win the nomination. Johnson, in a manner that is still hotly debated, was offered the Vice Presidential slot. Did Kennedy just offer Johnson the second spot out of courtesy, figuring that Johnson would turn it down, or was it an Electoral College calculation by the Kennedy campaign. No one knows for sure, but Kennedy and Johnson would make a formidable campaign team.
In Chicago, the Republicans, outside of some disappointed supporters of Rockefeller who wanted a more liberal platform, and some disappointed supporters of Barry Goldwater, who wanted a more conservative one, had a fairly peaceful convention. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts was nominated for Vice President. Nixon wanted another person with foreign policy experience to run alongside him, figuring that his best chance to beat Kennedy would be to emphasize the 43-year old senator’s inexperience with foreign affairs. (Nixon was an experienced 47 years old.)
For most of us, the 1960 election is associated with a series of debates between Kennedy and Nixon. The story, often repeated, is that Nixon had a better command of the issues, but was considered a loser because he refused to wear makeup and looked bad on television. White does mention the lack of makeup (and also that Nixon had lost weight from a staph infection a few weeks before the first debate), but also describes how Nixon seemed uncomfortable during the first debate, compared to the relaxed and confident Kennedy.
If you have an hour to kill, you can watch the first debate here.
There were actually four debates and Nixon did better in them as time went on. But, according to White, the biggest problem with the debates was that neither candidate took any bold stance on any issue and mostly spoke in platitudes.
White also went into detail about the work of the press during the campaign. By 1960, reporters would travel the country with candidates, although most of them had to find their own transportation. Kennedy had a private jet, but only a few seats, so not all the reporters were able to hitch a ride. Nixon rarely invited reporters to fly along with him. Kennedy’s staff provided advance copies of speeches to the press. Nixon’s staff was wary of the press and thought that they should take their own notes of speeches and would not provide transcripts until the closing weeks of the campaign.
The election was incredibly close and the result was in doubt until the morning after the election, the longest an election would be in doubt until 2000. NBC’s coverage from 1960 can be viewed here and you can see how election coverage from that time has changed dramatically in some respects, at least with graphics, although TV still enjoys having reporters sit at desks and read off numbers and trying to predict winners. (NBC called the election for Kennedy when they said he won California. Nixon won California.)
Kennedy, depending how you did the counting (Alabama had a weird setup), won the popular vote over Nixon by about 112,000 votes. The margin was 49.72% for Kennedy and 49.55% for Nixon. The electoral college was more decisive, breaking for Kennedy by a 303-219 margin with 15 electors for voting for Harry Byrd of Virginia. Kennedy is the last person to win a presidential election without winning Ohio.
One major issue that White points to in the book is the Democrats successful courting of the African-American vote (in the parlance of 1960, ”the Negro vote.”) Kennedy, spurred on by campaign advisor Harris Wofford, made overtures to major civil rights figures. When Martin Luther King was facing a potential four-month prison stay in Georgia, Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to offer support, while Bobby Kennedy worked on judges to get Martin Luther King’s sentence commuted. Nixon could not make up his wind what stance to take, and his indecision cost him hundreds of thousands of black votes in the South, an area which he hoped the Republicans could win after Eisenhower’s limited success there in 1952 and 1956.
In a postmortem on the election, White shows a sharp distinction between the winning campaign of Kennedy and the losing campaign of Nixon. Despite Nixon’s credentials in the world community, he was viewed by many Americans as a rather divisive figure. Nixon was hard to embrace as a friend. Kennedy projected an image that was far more optimistic and that was what was appealing to voters in 1960. Nixon’s campaign theme seemed to be, “I know what’s best for you. Just trust me. You’ll like it.” But that was no match for “The New Frontier.”
The biggest value in reading White’s book about the 1960 campaign is that it is fascinating in hindsight. There is the eerie description about how Secret Service agents go over to Hyannisport to start providing protection for Kennedy that should last “four or eight years.” Jacqueline Kennedy is pregnant with the couple’s only son. Richard Nixon is distrustful of the press, and often prone to fits of pique. White relates a story about how a man broke through a police line at LAX to grab Kennedy by the lapels before he was removed by LAPD officers (not Secret Service). Lyndon Johnson is fairly quiet throughout the book. John F. Kennedy is portrayed as a happy family man without any major health problems.
The election of 1860 was a very big deal. The election of 1960 turned out to be one also. If those of you reading this today are fortunate enough to be alive in 2060 (I’d be 94, so I’m not overly optimistic), will you get an election that momentous?