Campaign of the Century: John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and the Election of 1960

From a Wall Street Journal review by Robert S. Merry of the book by Irwin F. Gellman titled “Campaign of the Century: Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960”:

When Richard Nixon ran against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1950, his House colleague John Kennedy slipped him a $1,000 campaign contribution from the family patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, who liked Nixon’s anticommunist fervor. Nine years later, when the two men emerged as likely presidential nominees for their respective parties, Kennedy asked Nixon to keep the matter secret so he could avoid a political firestorm from fellow Democrats. The Californian agreed; later, when columnist Drew Pearson got wind of the story, Nixon press secretary Herb Klein denied the report. Nixon acquiesced in the public lie to honor his private commitment to the man emerging as his most threatening political rival.

This anecdote, recounted in historian Irwin F. Gellman’s “Campaign of the Century,” encapsulates the author’s central thesis—that Richard Nixon got a raw deal from campaign reporters and later historians who portrayed him as a menacing political scoundrel, when in fact he deserved greater recognition for his “high road” politics. “Those who insist on seeing Nixon only as a dark and devious character,” Mr. Gellman writes, “overlook the fact that he ran by far the more honorable, and honest, campaign.”

The author’s thesis is highly provocative even today, as Kennedy’s image retains its mythic magic, and Nixon remains tethered to the term “Watergate.” The author also evinces a certain defiance by proclaiming that now, “for the first time, the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns are documented from extensive source material on both sides.” This permits, Mr. Gellman suggests, “a more balanced account.” He offers as detailed an exploration of the 1960 presidential race as can be found. His bibliography and endnotes encompass fully 125 pages. In lean prose and a hammering style, he presents a catalog of complaints designed to present Nixon as the victim of hostile reporters, rabid partisans and biased historians.

There are elements of truth in this account. Mr. Gellman clearly documents that the campaign press corps did, in fact, favor Kennedy overwhelmingly and generally detested Nixon. As Russell Baker of the New York Times put it, “a depressing number of really fine reporters lost their skepticism and went ga-ga over [Kennedy].” Most ga-ga of all, argues Mr. Gellman, was Theodore H. White, who for a dozen years scampered across the political landscape in search of epics and heroes for his hugely successful and highly influential “Making of the President” books.

White cleverly crafted a novelistic formula as a way of beguiling and galvanizing readers. This required heroes, and for White in 1960 picking one was easy. His hero was Kennedy—“young, rich, heroic, witty, well read—and handsome.” But any true hero needs a villain to smite, and that was easy, too. According to White, Nixon presented “many strange qualities—the thrust of enormous internal drives, an overwhelming desire to be liked and, where he is rebuffed, a bitter, impulsive reflex of lashbacks.” Also: “great capacity for self-pity.” White thus drew the conventional distinction between Kennedy and Nixon with particular pungency….

But the view of Nixon harbored by journalists and liberals long predated the 1960 campaign. It reflected certain personality quirks displayed by that gifted but flawed politician both before and after the 1960 canvass. The self-pity noted by White later emerged with his 1962 California gubernatorial defeat and his declaration to reporters that they “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And the “lashback” trait clearly was seen years later in the infamous White House “enemies list.”

Mr. Gellman is correct in arguing that Nixon doesn’t get credit for many of the honorable traits on display in 1960, and that Kennedy’s worst actions have been largely glossed over. Nixon never attacked Kennedy personally and in fact treated his opponent more respectfully than many Democrats had done in seeking to deny him the nomination. Nixon avoided the controversial matter of Kennedy’s Catholicism. And after the balloting he declined to challenge the razor-thin outcomes in Illinois and Texas, though many Republicans urged him to do so based on evidence of electoral fraud. There was no doubt that shenanigans occurred in these places, and whether they were sufficient to alter the result remains an open question, but Mr. Gellman argues strenuously that the election was likely stolen. Meanwhile, the author says, Kennedy engaged in reckless sexual adventurism throughout the campaign, including with a woman with links to the Chicago mafia, and he lied to the American people about his lingering back problems and the Addison’s disease that posed a serious health threat.

Not content to portray Nixon as the more honorable candidate, Mr. Gellman debunks just about every element of the conventional mythology surrounding 1960. Kennedy’s vote total wasn’t held down by anti-Catholic sentiment; a surge of Catholic voters to the Democrat offset any such development. The candidate debates were essentially a wash in terms of public opinion, not the great Kennedy triumph portrayed by many. The black vote didn’t flock to Kennedy in the numbers that some historians later suggested.

This revisionist tract is sure to kick up controversy. But it’s worth noting that nothing ever stays the same for long in public life. Just eight years after that 1960 campaign, the world was a different place: Kennedy was dead; Lyndon Johnson, having hit the shoals of Vietnam, retired from politics; and the American people turned to the opposition Republicans.

One thing that didn’t change was Teddy White’s need for heroes to enliven his campaign narratives. In 1968 he developed a revised view of the man now widely seen as “the New Nixon.” Without retracting his previous portrayal of “the intemperate partisan scourge, . . . the poor and persistent loser,” he now saw a vastly improved man “of extraordinary courage, of dogged perseverance, the precise thinker and meticulous planner, the character changed by learning and experience.”

Such are the vagaries of American politics.

Robert Merry, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a former CEO of Congressional Quarterly, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.

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