It’s very early in the election process (No one has even voted yet.), but it appears that the 2016 Presidential election will be one of the most unusual, entertaining and memorable in US history.  Anything can happen.  On the GOP side we have a wide open field featuring two candidates that have no political experience, one of which is the leader by a comfortable margin, a woman, and an African American.  On the Democratic side the two legitimate candidates include an avowed Socialist and a woman, the presumed nominee, who is under investigation by the FBI and may be indicted during or after the campaign.  In addition, it is possible that others (e.g. Joe Biden, Jerry Brown) are biding their time and will jump in if events provide them with an opening.  Finally, there is the possibility that former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg will enter the race as an Independent, even though no third-party candidate has ever won election.  To quote comedian Arte Johnson of “Laugh-In” fame, “verrrry interesting.”

This scenario has prompted me to blog about other significant/controversial Presidential elections.  Today’s feature is the 1960 election in which John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Junior Senator from Massachusetts, defeated Vice President Richard Nixon.  This election was notable for several reasons:

  1.  It was extremely close.  At that time, election prognoses were not nearly as sophisticated as they are now, and many states were not “called” until most of the country had already gone to bed.  The lead in many states, such as Texas, Illinois, California, and others, switched back and forth throughout the night.   In fact, ironically, the tv networks prematurely “called” California for JFK early the next morning putting him over the top, but several days later, after all the absentee ballots had been counted, Nixon actually won the state.
  2. The race was so close that JFK only won the popular vote by 113,000 votes (.17 percent).   Nixon became the first candidate to lose while carrying more states than his opponent.
  3. This was the first presidential election in which both major party candidates had been born in the 20th Century.
  4. JFK became the first Roman Catholic President.
  5. JFK’s charisma was very powerful, especially to young voters and teenagers, like me.  He was superb on the “stump.”  He was very telegenic, as was his wife Jackie.  He made people feel optimistic.  His watchword was “The New Frontier,” but it could easily have been “Hope and Change.”
  6. The debates were pivotal.  They were the first ones to be televised.  Many people believe JFK won them because of his youthful, vibrant appearance and with it, the election, itself.  Nixon appeared worn and haggard, especially in the first debate, and his “5 o’clock shadow” showed up on tv giving him a “sinister” look to some viewers.  Indeed, a majority of those who listened on radio felt that Nixon had won.  JFK was also the superior debater.  There is some difference of opinion on the impact of the debates, however, and I could write a whole separate blog on the ins and outs of them.
  7.  This was the first Presidential election in which the incumbent, Dwight Eisenhower, was not eligible to run.  Having already been elected to two terms, Ike was prohibited from running for a third term by the 22nd Amendment, which had been passed in 1951.
  8. There were suspicions of voter fraud, most notably in Illinois and Texas. More on this later.
The nominating process was radically different for the two parties.  For the GOP, Nixon was the obvious nominee, although he had to fend off a challenge from NY Governor, Nelson Rockefeller.  On the other hand, the Democratic nomination was wide open.  Major candidates included JFK, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, California Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (the current governor’s father), and Senators Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington and Wayne Morse.  There were many fewer primaries then, so their results were not decisive.  In fact, Johnson and Symington eschewed them entirely.
JFK had to overcome two big negatives: (1) Some thought he was too young and inexperienced to serve as president and should settle for VP, and (2) there was serious doubt as to whether or not a Catholic could be elected, and, if he were would he be beholden to the Pope.  He overcame the first by declaring “I’m not running for vice president.  I’m running for president.”  He overcame the second one by defeating Humphrey in the primary in West Virginia, a largely Protestant state.
At the convention, initially several candidates had blocs of support pledged to them.  No one could gain a majority.  In addition to the major candidates, a few “favorite sons” emerged.  Eventually, JFK emerged as the leader with LBJ the chief rival.   LBJ, though very popular in the South, could not expand his delegate strength beyond that region.  Late entrant, Adlai Stevenson, never got his candidacy off the ground, despite the strong support of Eleanor Roosevelt.  “Smoke-filled room” maneuvering was intense.
Finally, in a very controversial move, JFK offered LBJ the VP spot in exchange for his crucial support in the South.  This brilliant political move (Larry O’Brien, his campaign manager called it “a stroke of genius”) was bitterly opposed by many of JFK’s insiders, notably Robert Kennedy and Lawrence O’Donnell.  However, it not only cinched the nomination, but it also was likely the difference in the general election.  In any event, many doubted LBJ would accept as he would have had to give up his powerful position in the Senate, but he did.  JFK was nominated on the first ballot.
The two main election issues were the economy (as always) and the Cold War.  JFK benefited from the serious recession in 1957-58, which was still fresh in many people’s minds.  Nixon was thought to have the edge in fighting the Cold War.  As I said, the election was extremely close and controversial.
In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who had an unscrupulous reputation, was suspected of holding back Cook County results until he could ascertain how many Democratic votes were needed to carry the state.  This was not the first election to have fostered such suspicions; hence the expression, and I paraphrase, “in Chicago they vote early and often, even from the cemetery.” Furthermore, in Texas in a few precincts there were more votes counted than total registered voters.
As I said previously, election night was very suspenseful because of the closeness of the vote as well as the relatively unsophisticated polling techniques of the day.  Many people stayed up until the wee hours.  As the night wore on, it appeared that JFK would win, albeit narrowly.  In fact, in an early edition of the next day’s newspaper the venerable “New York Times” actually published a headline “Kennedy Elected President.”  In his memoirs, Turner Catledge, the Managing Editor, disclosed that he had had second thoughts later that night.  He wrote that he hoped “a certain Midwestern mayor would steal enough votes to pull Kennedy through” to save “The Times” from the same embarrassment that had befallen the “Chicago Tribune” in the 1948 election.
Nixon could have challenged the results in those states, and others, but chose not to do so despite the urgings of some of his advisors.  Whether he did so to spare the country a long drawn-out and controversial constitutional battle, as some have claimed, or for some other reason, we will never know for sure.  Over the years, it has been the subject of much speculation and has helped make the 1960 election one of the most exciting and controversial in history.

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