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The Making of Richard Nixon

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Campaign of the Century: Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960
Irwin F. Gellman
Yale University Press. 473 pp. $35

 

By Donald A. Ritchie

 

    Unlike the last presidential election, the loser in 1960 did not insist the election was rigged and stolen from him, did not press state officials to overturn the results, and did not whip his supporters into taking mob action, even though he had more legitimate claim to protest. Irwin F. Gellman argues that vote fraud in Illinois and Texas corrupted 1960's “campaign of the century.” His account depicts John F. Kennedy as less of a hero and Richard M. Nixon as less of a villain than they are typically portrayed.

    Gellman takes issue with nearly everyone who has written about that election, and counters with his own prodigious research in a wide range of manuscripts and oral histories. He believes that scholars have favored East Coast sources, particularly the accommodating Kennedy Library, to the detriment of the West Coast-based Nixon Library, whose records he describes as less helpfully organized and more difficult to find.

    Most of all, Gellman rejects the romantic notions of the campaign perpetuated by Theodore H. White’s immensely popular and influential book, The Making of the President 1960. He accuses ThwWhite of having been seduced by Kennedy, who gave him ready access during the campaign, while Nixon, suspicious of White’s politics, repeatedly declined to be interviewed. Gellman dismisses White for distorting the candidates and the issues and offers his own account as a corrective.

    The election of 1960, whose popular vote was one of the closest presidential contests in history (although the electoral margin was wider), reflected voter uncertainty about both candidates. After eight years of the grandfatherly Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon represented a younger generation, more risky and less reassuring. Both were political centrists and Cold War anticommunists. Both straddled parties that were internally divided between liberal and conservative wings. And both tried to appeal to black voters in the North without alienating white segregationists in the South. Kennedy faced suspicion due to his Catholicism, Nixon for perceptions of past cutthroat politics. Doubts about both candidates persisted and the polls remained evenly divided throughout the race, with the lead tipping back and forth as Americans tried to make up their minds.

    The question was how accurately voters perceived the choice. Gellman faults the media for not presenting a more honest picture of Kennedy’s dicey health and philandering, and of the immense amount of money his wealthy family poured into the campaign for legitimate and illegitimate expenses. Although most newspapers endorsed Nixon—who was favored by their conservative publishers--the leading national news reporters liked Kennedy and distrusted Nixon, shaping their coverage. At the time, reporters followed a code that the private conduct of a politician was off limits unless it affected public behavior. Like alcoholism, adultery was a bipartisan failing, which kept the parties from exploiting it as an issue. Libel suits also posed potential peril in the days before the Supreme Court’s Sullivan decision in 1964. Even if reporters had tried to file such stories, editors would have kept them from print.

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