Photo from The Richard Nixon Presidential Library on Wikimedia Commons

Campaign of the Century

Irwin F. Gellman—

Kennedy and Nixon ran one of the closest elections in American history. While JFK had an enormous margin in Democratic registration, the vote for each was almost identical. Kennedy appeared before enthusiastic crowds, but so did Nixon. Many argued that JFK ran a masterful campaign and criticized Nixon for pledging to visit all fifty states, a pledge he fulfilled. They overlook the fact that JFK visited forty-five states. Kennedy and his partisans held that anti-Catholicism stopped him from winning by a landslide, but ignore the fact that the only significant change in the voting pattern was that Kennedy received 29 percent more Catholic votes than Eisenhower did in his 1956 landslide.

How did such a close election engender the presumption that one candidate was the hero and the other a villain?

Kennedy’s assassination turned him into a martyr and for a time made any realistic assessment of his career seem uncharitable and beside the point. The only existing biography of him published before that tragic event was by the committed Democrat James MacGregor Burns, who had changed his narrative after receiving complaints from Kennedy and Sorensen. Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960, already hugely influential, became preserved in amber as the definitive account of the election. After the president’s death, Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s alter ego, spent the rest of his life popularizing the perception of his boss’s greatness. Others in the administration, like Pierre Salinger and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., followed a similar course. Friends like Paul Fay, Kenny O’Donnell, and David Powers wrote memoirs eulogizing the president. Ben Bradlee, Joseph Alsop, James Reston, and other reporters who had depicted Kennedy in a flattering light during his lifetime continued to do so. That is understandable. They were staying true to what they had already written. Even had they wanted to present more balanced accounts, doing so would have courted outrage from admirers of the fallen president who defined an era.

Current historians, however, have no excuse for distorting or falsifying facts, yet they continue to do so. Jeffrey Frank’s Ike and Dick, which purports to be a “portrait of a strange political marriage” that had nothing strange about it, asserts that Eisenhower was ambivalent about whether he wanted Nixon to win the election. The president in fact desperately wanted his vice president to carry out his legacy. Robert Dallek and Randall Woods devote much attention to the corruption that occurred during Lyndon Johnson’s first two senatorial races but ignore the issue in his race for the vice presidency. Thomas Carty and Shaun Casey hold, with little support other than the opinions of partisans, that Kennedy’s Catholicism cost him votes, yet both campaigns’ behavior as well as a demographic analysis of the vote show that just the opposite occurred.

The few historians, like Ed Kallina and Bill Rorabaugh, who have tried to correct parts of the record have generally been ignored.

The youngest people who were eligible to vote in 1960 are now in their eighties. Nearly all of the significant players in that election—the candidates and their wives, the journalists who wrote about them, the senators, congressmen and -women, party leaders, local officials, businesspeople, union leaders, priests and pastors, activists and volunteers—have passed from the scene. The time has come to remove partisan blinders and to understand Nixon and Kennedy, two complex, driven, powerfully ambitious men, on the basis of what they actually said and did.

From Campaign of the Century: Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960 by Irwin F. Gellman. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Irwin F. Gellman is a renowned scholar of twentieth‑century American presidential history. His books include The Contender and The President and the Apprentice. He lives in West Chester, PA.

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