Tomorrow, Monday November 8, 2010, is the 50th anniversary of the election of Senator John F. Kennedy over Vice President Richard Nixon. I’m fascinated by the parallels that election presents to our most recent presidential election in 2008. In both cases Americans overcame supposedly insurmountable prejudices to elect to the highest office first an Irish Catholic (the youngest man ever elected president of the USA), and later an African-American (only a few years older). In both elections much was made of leadership being passed to a more forward-looking generation, one that could respond more nimbly to the changing conditions of the times and the world around us. Though 1960 was a much closer election than 2008 (more like that of 2000 in fact) the triumph of Kennedy, like that of Obama 48 years later, was often hailed as epoch-making.
Yet unsurprisingly, both presidents quickly ran into trouble: JFK at the Bay of Pigs and at the Vienna conference with Khrushchev, then over the Eastern Bloc’s erection of the Berlin Wall. For Obama, whose initial appeal had rested largely on his principled opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the trouble came on the domestic economic front with the implosion of the worldwide financial system and the near bankruptcy of the American economy.
Because I see the recent Republican and “Tea Party” gains as a (hopefully temporary) triumph of cultural politics rather than as a logical electoral response to either economic or foreign policy setbacks, I’m most interested today in the cultural/sociological implications of 1960 and how they’ve played out in the years and decades since.
The way I see it, JFK’s victory was patched together via an alliance of Adlai Stevenson good government types, ethnics, and the still largely-solidly Democratic South, bolstered in urban areas outside the South by the African-American vote. JFK kept together the progressive-internationalist-egghead suburbanites and the big city working class Catholics of Irish, Italian, and Polish background with a cleverly calibrated two-tier strategy that offered high-minded idealism for Stevensonians and the lunch-bucket appeal of the big city political machine for aspiring ethnics. When it came to the trickier divide between African-Americans and Southern Democrats, he talked publicly of his commitment to expanded civil rights in the South while privately reassuring his Southern Democratic allies that he would respect the “local” spheres of influence that made any such civil rights reform impossible.
Nixon’s task in the election was both simpler and more subtle, given hjs own reputation and the sociopolitical context in which he was running. His goal was to present a youthful version of the status quo, riding on the popularity and respect for Dwight Eisenhower while simultaneously establishing an independent identity as something other than Ike’s political attack dog. The disgrace of Joe McCarthy had turned the country off vitriolic anti-Communism of the sort Nixon had exploited a decade earlier; all his advisors concurred that he must present himself as dignified and statesmanlike, as far removed from his reputation for “slipperiness” and vitriol as possible. This probably inescapable strategy, however, left Nixon hamstrung, unable to exploit the inevitable prejudices of the older Protestant majority against a callow , Irish-Catholic, Eaat Coast politician.
So Nixon went down to the narrowest of defeats, one that even Nixon himself characterized in his 1972 diary as probably good for the country: “It might have been that we would have continued the establishment types in office too long and would not have done the job we should have done as far as the country is concerned.”
As usual with Nixon, however, the apparent humility is immediately contradicted by a grandiose pretension: in this instance, by the claim that, if he had been elected in 1960, he would have “saved Cuba from Castro,” as well as the USA from the Vietnam debacle (no doubt with another one of those “secret plans” for ending the war he talked about during hits successful 1968 run.)
Confronted by JFK’s cool humor and stiff upper lip stoicism in 1960, Nixon buried his own seething resentments under a layer of dignity and apparent reasonableness. Maybe because he carried his native state of California in that election, he was confident of pursuing a similar strategy when running for Governor two years later. Something, however, snapped inside him when he lost that race: the pent-up private Nixon exploded with fury at the media which he believed had been “kicking him around” for more than a decade (just like the rich upper class kids aat Whittier College had made his life miserable).
From then on, Nixon gave free rein—among close associates, in private— a to the politics of resentment, all the while assiduously maintaining a dignified public pose as serene elder statesman. Nixon’s 1963 letter of condolence to Jacqueline Kennedy in response to JFK’s assassination is, thank goodness, largely free of the grandiosity with which he nursed his own sense of inferiority. At the same time he clearly tries to link himself directly to JFK:
“In this tragic hour, Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
“While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherish the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.
“Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world.
“But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You bought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in art which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.
“If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
Jackie Kennedy showed profound insight in her response to Nixon, reading him and his inevitable desire for another try at the Presidency with chilling accuracy: “I know how you must feel – . . . so closely missing the greatest prize – and now …the question comes up again”
In fact, according to Nixon’s 1972 diary entry, published in his 1978 memoir, the loss in the California governor’s race in 1962 probably saved him from defeat at the hands of LBJ in 1964 and set him up for a much more profitable campaign in 1968. As Chris Matthews has pointed out so elegantly in his book, KENNEDY AND NIXON, the lesson Nixon learned most from the 1960 election was not to emulate JFK’s appeal to the nation’s higher aspirations, but to return to the low road he had perfected so well in the late 1940s and as Ike’s running mate. What with the civil war among the Democrats provoked by the Vietnam War, he was perfectly positioned to play the resentment card against all longhairs and radicals in the 1968 and 1972 elections.At the same time he also took a page from the Kennedy machine’s tendency to play political hardball no matter how personal and ruthless it got: in the Watergate crisis he would go the kennedy juggernaut one better, and proclaim as his “cover” the fact that he had done nothing different than what his rival Jack Kennedy had done.
For her part, Jacqueline Kenendy Onassis came to regret having ever giving permission to Dick Nixon to reprint in facsimile her January 1964 personal handwritten response to his condolence letter.