Election 1960: JFK vs. Nixon pt. 2
Joe Rubenstein Interviews David Pietrusza,
Author of 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies
Joe Rubenstein: Greetings to you. Joe Rubenstein here, producer and host of Real Time 1960s. I want to thank you very much for joining me today for Episode 4 of this portal into the world of 60 years ago, where I document and reflect on the ‘60s, in real time, with both podcasts and our timeline, with posts each and every day about the history -- world events, politics, movies, TV, music, sports, culture -- of that decade. And that timeline, along with all our podcasts, social media links, contact info, all that can be found on our website, www.realtime1960s.com.
Today’s topic, Decision 1960, Part 2, as we investigate the latter stages of the Kennedy-Nixon election. There's a link to Part 1 in the episode notes. There, I interviewed historian Gary Donaldson, with whom I covered the race up to and including the summer conventions of 1960. But today's focus: what happened after that, up to and including the election itself on November 8th. And we'll get into it with David Pietrusza, author of a terrific book on this election, and there's a link to that book in the show notes as well. So, Decision 1960, Part 2, right now [Music]
Rubenstein: We are joined this week on Real Time 1960s by a very special guest, David Pietrusza, who’s been called the “undisputed champion of chronicling American presidential campaigns” and has authored books on the elections of 1920, 1932, and 1948. But today, we focus on David’s recent and outstanding account of the Kennedy-Nixon election. That book is called 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies. David, it’s great to have you on the show. How are you?
David Pietrusza: Good to be on.
Rubenstein: The election of 1960 is perhaps the most chronicled in American history, and yet, I managed to learn a number of new things from your book. So, I’m curious, what were some of the things that you learned during your research? And was there anything that surprised you and changed your conception of what happened that year?
Pietrusza: I think the main surprise was just how close it was, even though you know [laughs] -- but why it was close, or how it was close. JFK makes all the right moves, starting with who his vice president is going to be and how he’s going to treat the first debate and how he gets around the Catholic issue. And Nixon makes a whole bunch of mistakes, including his vice-presidential pick and how he treats the first debate, the 50-state strategy, so that he’s tired and sick. The Republican party is not the majority party. It’s still, basically, a New Deal nation. Dwight Eisenhower was Dwight Eisenhower. And in 1958, there was a bloodbath at the polls for Republicans. They were very much wiped out. So, Nixon has to close that gap, and he closes it while making a lot of mistakes and while Jack Kennedy does a lot of things right.
Rubenstein: And as you referenced, it was historically close, especially the popular vote, a number of states decided by razor-thin margins. And as a result, there are a number of inflection points that one could look at and say, "You know, if that had gone differently, maybe Nixon wins."
Now, with all due respect to Eisenhower -- who was a great general, obviously, and I think probably an underrated president -- the way he handled his role as leader of the Republican Party during the '60 campaign and, really, his treatment of Nixon in general were pretty bad. He seemed to twist himself into knots to avoid endorsing Nixon or saying anything positive about him, even refusing to say his name, which created endless, gleeful news cycles by reporters who hated Nixon and hero-worshipped John F. Kennedy.
So my question, David, is first of all, why the shabby treatment? And second of all, and perhaps more importantly, given how popular Eisenhower was personally, if he had given his full-throated support from the very beginning, do you think that might have been enough to push Nixon over the top?
Pietrusza: Going back to the very beginning of the story, you know, we think the presidential candidate picks the vice-presidential candidate. In 1952, that was not the case. And that was, in the preceding years and decades, often not the case. So, it’s really the guys in the back room, the Thomas E. Dewey crowd of the Republican party, that picks Dick Nixon. And Eisenhower goes along with that, and things are going fine for, oh, weeks. [laughs] And then come the allegations of a slush fund against Nixon. And Ike kind of lets him twist in the wind for a while. Nixon goes on TV, gives the Checkers speech, rebounds.
But in 1956, Ike is ready, willing, and able to dump Nixon from the ticket, says, “Well, you can have just about any position in government you want, except Treasury and State. Why don’t you leave the ticket?” And Nixon says, “No, I’m going to stay on.” And Eisenhower does not push Nixon onto the party in 1960, although he could very well have gotten in back of him because the only competition, for a while, was Nelson Rockefeller, who was taking some major potshots at the Eisenhower Administration as he was trying to get the nomination. And all the way through that campaign, Eisenhower stays back. Nixon is afraid to reach out to him.
And then, the word comes back from Mamie Eisenhower to Pat Nixon, “Your husband should really not have my husband campaign for him because of his health.” And of course, with Dwight Eisenhower, there were the health issues. He had had two major health crises during his presidency. But at one point, he was ready to go. And then Nixon says, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t do it,” and he’s thinking of Eisenhower’s health. And Eisenhower, again, gets mad at Nixon and, behind his back, says, “He looks like a loser to me.”
But he will stir himself towards the end, and when he does, and when he goes on television, or when he goes on the stump -- it’s not very often -- it has a remarkable effect. Jack Kennedy says he could feel votes oozing out of him with every word that Eisenhower was speaking. And that may be one of the reasons why Nixon comes so close, because there is some transference in the minds of the public between the marginally popular Nixon and the phenomenally popular Dwight Eisenhower.
Rubenstein: You know, one of the things I liked about your book was its evenhanded, critical treatment of the major players, none of whom come off especially well -- Robert Kennedy, in particular. We’ll get to that. But between JFK, RFK, Johnson, and Nixon, I would say Nixon actually comes off the least bad. Now, I know he’s been largely defined by Watergate, but the truth is, the Kennedys ran a much dirtier campaign than Nixon in 1960, all the while accusing him of underhanded tactics.
Reading your book, it seems to me that the biggest stain on Nixon's campaign that year wasn't dirty tricks, but ineptitude and refusal to delegate tasks or take advice. For example, West Point’s legendary football coach, Red Blake, wrote him a letter and said, “Pace yourself. This is a long, hard game.” Nixon scrawled the word “right” in the margin, and then proceeded to not pace himself at all; he ran himself ragged. Although I should say that, despite all that, he did come within a whisker of winning. But why do you think Nixon ran a less effective campaign in 1960 than he had in his earlier career, and what do you think were his biggest mistakes?
Pietrusza: Jack Kennedy keeps Robert Kennedy, obviously, all the time, and he has that whole “Irish Mafia” around him. Nixon has aides, I think, of lesser quality. You know, this is where Haldeman and Ehrlichman come in, and better people too, who’ve been around, like Bob Finch. He’s lost his original guru, Murray Chotiner, in the 1950s, sort of an original dirty trickster guy. And it may not take a village, but it takes a team, and it takes some delegation to rise to the presidency. And Nixon is just not doing that; and so, he wears himself out.
That Red Blake letter is a remarkably composed piece of advice, telling Nixon that it’s not just the message. It’s not just the issues. It’s what the candidate, the salesman, looks like. And as we know, Nixon quite often looked very bad on television. You think later on, going ahead, to when he’d be explaining the bombing of Cambodia or this or that, and he’d be shifting his eyes around and sweating, et cetera. So, when he bangs his left knee on a car door, four days later, he’s at Camp David. It’s swelling up, and they say, “Get to the hospital. Get to Walter Reed, or you’re going to end up this campaign on one leg. There’s a serious infection which has set in.” And when he comes out of the hospital, he then gets sick again and is running a 103-degree fever, is wearing himself to a frazzle. So, when he goes on the air in that first television debate in Chicago, he’s lost 10 pounds. The shirt and his suit are hanging on him, not the vim-and-vigor candidate, at that moment, that Jack Kennedy is.
And that’s one of the many ironies of this campaign -- that Nixon, who largely had been healthy his whole life, ends up sick during that campaign, substantially so. And Jack Kennedy, who had been a sickly person his whole life, who had a chronically bad back, who had Addison’s disease, who had twice been administered the last rites of the Catholic Church, is really at peak health during this campaign, in the best shape, maybe, of his entire life.
Rubenstein: With the religious issue, Kennedy’s Catholicism, a somewhat comical aspect to this is that, unlike his brother Robert, John Kennedy was not exactly devout. As you put it, he viewed his Catholicism as just something he was born with, like being Irish. Sometimes it was politically convenient, sometimes not. But how this would impact the election was a genuine unknown in 1960. There had never been a Catholic president, and Al Smith, a Catholic who had run against Herbert Hoover in 1928, had been demolished that year. And it wasn’t just Southern or Midwestern Protestants who may have had a problem with JFK's religion, but you point out that there was anti-Catholic prejudice among the liberal elites as well, including Eleanor Roosevelt. So, when all is said and done, do you think Kennedy’s Catholicism hurt him or helped him, or was it ultimately a wash?
Pietrusza: It’s probably a wash, in most of the electoral college, certainly in the deep South, where he can -- you know, he’s got a margin for error there. He can lose a lot of votes and still carry those states. But in the Midwest, it can cut both ways. It probably helped him in parts of Ohio and in Wisconsin, which were fairly Catholic states, and in portions of Michigan. But then, you go further into the Midwest, where the Catholic population gets smaller and smaller, and I think it probably did hurt him in some of those deep states like Nebraska or Iowa or Kansas.
Kennedy has to deal with the Catholic issue starting in West Virginia, which is 97 percent Protestant, where he had been leading in the polls early on, leading up to the primary against Hubert Humphrey. Then, when the population says, “Hey, that fellow’s a Catholic there. We don’t know about him. What’s he going to be like?” He deals with that by pointing out his service, and his late brother Joe’s service in World War II, saying, “Nobody asked me or my late brother Joe what our religion was when we signed up to fight in World War II for America.”
And he’s going to deal with it later on, most famously, when he addresses a group of Baptist ministers in Houston. And it’s all set up to be a TV appearance, and it is to be aired nationwide -- where he deals with the issue of, “Is he going to be a pawn of the Pope?” Same accusations that were hurled against Al Smith. And he dances a dance on that, saying basically, he’s going to be the president of the United States; he’s going to be an American. He’s going to be following the Constitution and the laws and not letting his religion interfere with that. Interestingly enough, most of the places where that TV show is going to air are going to be in Catholic areas. So again, it’s going to remind the Catholics that, “This is your boy.” And that is going to be a very powerful attraction for Catholic voters.
Rubenstein: And I, personally, think that appearance in Houston was the best performance that he gave in the entire campaign, far more impressive, to me, than his performance at any of the debates. So talk about, first of all, the thought process that led to Kennedy accepting that invitation to Houston, over his father’s objections, and also about something else I learned from your book, which was the conscious stagecraft that went into that appearance, with Kennedy kind of facing the ministers down all by himself.
Pietrusza: Yes, he’s a bit of the lone gunslinger, or to use a more Biblical term, a Daniel in the lion’s den. Stagecraft and message and -- I mean, Kennedy was just great at that. And let’s go back further, much further from 1960. What is one of the endeavors of Joe Kennedy? It’s not just stock speculation and trading in the liquor traffic in the wake of Prohibition, but it’s Hollywood, with RKO and Pathé and being a consultant for RCA and Paramount. And Jack Kennedy often goes out there, and he learns sort of the old, star-making machinery and is able to observe what gives people star power. You think back to the early, early Jack Kennedy, even when he arrives in Congress, he’s really not that attractive. He’s damn scrawny. He has to put a little meat on him, and he has to put a few miles of experience in learning how to carry himself, and he will eventually do that.
Rubenstein: The Kennedys basically used Lyndon Johnson as a weapon in the South. His task was to shore up, well, certainly Texas, with its 24 electoral votes, but the other Southern states as well, and that was it. And Johnson, who in 1960 was entering what would become the most miserable period of his political life to that point, was hurt by this. He noticed how Henry Cabot Lodge often appeared with Nixon. So, David, what was the thinking behind that? Did the Kennedys feel that Johnson, who wasn't that much older than Kennedy but looked a lot older, that that would hurt Kennedy’s “New Frontier” image? Did they think that the Southern accent might scare off black voters? And do you think that this kind of restricted usage of LBJ was a mistake?
Pietrusza: Fairly early on in the campaign, Jack Kennedy says to an aide that he realizes that Southern support could be a real albatross. So, even though some of his earliest supporters -- and in fact, one of the most noteworthy was the very segregationist and Klan-backed Governor Patterson of Alabama -- that he’s got to move away from a Southern base. He’s got to move into cementing his support, which was shaky, with Northern liberals, with Northern blacks, who were now, as many blacks living in the North as in the South. And they voted in the North; you had to take them very seriously. And it was a group which could not be taken for granted. Dwight Eisenhower had been moving up into the 30 and 40 percent range of the black vote in his 2 elections. The black population was slowly returning to the Republican party. Now, that was going to be short-circuited after 1964, but you didn’t quite know how it was going to turn out then.
Now, with Lyndon Johnson, Lyndon Johnson’s support in the North was, shall we say, negligible among liberals, among union members, among blacks. So, you sort of had to keep him hidden. He was a regional asset and, really, nothing more. In Texas, which again, had been trending Republican, it was a key thing to bringing that state back into the Democratic fold. And even some of the other Southern states were fairly close races. There’s only about 6 states which give Jack Kennedy more than 52 percent of the vote. That’s the thing. It’s not just the aggregate popular vote which is so razor-thin in that election, it’s state after state after state. So, Lyndon Johnson has to reassure the South that Jack Kennedy is going to be a safe candidate and someone they should be backing.
Rubenstein: As I said, Robert Kennedy, who was an excellent campaign manager, comes off pretty poorly as a human being in your book. The basic portrait is a kind of nasty, entitled brat who liked to play dirty while claiming the high road. He pushed FDR’s son, during the primaries, to attack Hubert Humphrey in West Virginia about Humphrey’s legitimate 4-F status during World War II. He spit in somebody's face who said something critical about his father, who was a genuinely awful person. He made an anti-Semitic remark to a Jewish reporter, for which JFK forced him apologize. And then, of course, dirty tricks, some of which were actually pretty clever. He had one of his operatives hire a female, supposed Nixon supporter to run up to Nixon after one of the debates, in front of reporters, and say loudly, “That’s all right, you’ll do better next time.” Now, I do think that Robert Kennedy probably changed a bit over the next few years, especially after his brother was killed. But what’s your assessment of Robert Kennedy in 1960, as both a campaign manager and a human being?
Pietrusza: Oh, he was very, very effective as a campaign manager. I mean, the whole team of that Irish Mafia is a very talented, capable group. They’re not hacks. They’re not pols from some ward in Boston or some remote part of Texas. So, they’re good, but he is an amazingly ruthless character then. And when you think of the iconic news clips of him, where he seems so soft, and quoting poetry, that it really doesn’t mesh. But behind the scenes, if you were to do anything against his brother, he’d absolutely cut your throat.
Rubenstein: Something else I learned from your book is that Nixon had seen a psychiatrist in the 1950s and that the Kennedys were not only aware of this, but Joe Kennedy had a whole dossier on Nixon’s psychiatric sessions -- I guess there’s nothing that money can’t buy -- and he considered using it during the campaign. In fact, I think he did plant an item with Walter Winchell, who sort of hinted at it in one of his columns. And it's funny; that whole incident, in your book, reminded me of some of the things that Nixon’s operatives, guys like G. Gordon Liddy, would do in the 1970s. They burglarized Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in 1971, to try and discredit Ellsberg after he exposed some of the lies that led to the Vietnam War. But talk about Nixon’s psychotherapy and the degree to which that was considered, by the Kennedys, as a viable point of attack.
Pietrusza: The story is leaked by the Kennedy camp. It is leaked, as you indicated, to Walter Winchell, a very, very influential columnist then, and it is picked up by one of the wire services, where they’re asking Nixon, or the Nixon camp, about it. And this is a bit of the October surprise. The story doesn’t go very far, at that point. There’s another story which goes a bit further, which involves something called “Nixonburgers,” where Donald Nixon, Richard Nixon’s brother, has a chain of hamburger joints. And the question is: did they secure loans and guarantees from Howard Hughes, who had certain other dealings with the federal government? And was Richard Nixon, as vice president, pulling strings for him? Nothing ever came of that, but that is also a story which the Kennedy camp is dumping on Nixon.
The question of mental instability, whether it’s a Daniel Ellsberg, later on in the ‘70s, or even more famously, with Tom Eagleton, who is George McGovern’s running mate in 1972, and is dumped from the ticket -- again, one of those ironies -- by a Kennedy who’s going to replace him, Sargent Shriver. These are something to be wary of when you’re a candidate. You don’t want people wondering if you’re somewhat unstable or not. And certainly, back then, there was a stigma attached to these things. So Nixon, going in to a psychiatrist, even on the most elementary level, would be something which could have blown up very badly in his face.
Rubenstein: The civil rights issue really came to the fore in October, when Martin Luther King was arrested at a sit-in demonstration at a department store in Atlanta, and then really unfairly sentenced to four months at a Georgia state prison for violating the terms of a prior traffic violation. So, take us through what happened there, David, and talk about JFK and RFK’s involvement, which was reported at the time, but somewhat inaccurately.
Pietrusza: The question is: who are the black leaders, in this election, going to support? And Nixon had had a number of dealings with Martin Luther King through the 1950s and in the 1960s, and Nixon had a fairly liberal reputation in terms of civil rights, more so than Jack Kennedy, when he was in the Senate. King says, “Maybe we should have a meeting, but we should have a meeting of the three of us.” But when that doesn’t happen, King participates in a sit-in of, I think, an actual restaurant, not a lunch counter, at an Atlanta department store, and he is arrested. The previous month, he had been arrested for a traffic violation, and he was given a suspended sentence -- that he would not go to jail or face any further ramifications unless there was some further violation on his record, which this sit-in was.
So, the judge, out in this rural part of Georgia, says, “Okay, you’re going to this prison camp,” one of these sort of Cool Hand Luke places, “in Georgia, for four months.” For a traffic violation. Now, this is just out of bounds; but it’s also very dangerous. We tend to think of the giants in our history as being physically large, larger than life. Martin Luther King Jr. was only about 5’6”. He’s not a big guy. You know, how well he would have fared in that prison camp -- not so good. His wife, Coretta Scott King, is very worried about this.
Nixon’s advisors say, “Mr. Vice President, you should do something about this.” Kennedy’s advisors say the same things to him. Kennedy eventually listens to his advisors, places a phone call to reassure Coretta Scott King. And then, there’s a second phone call from Bobby Kennedy to the judge. Now, Nixon had used, as an excuse, that it really is not quite proper to try to influence a judge on sentencing. But you know, this is certainly an extraordinary case. So, he was hiding behind that.
Bobby Kennedy was completely incensed, for a different reason, about Jack going public on this. He says, “This decision could cost us three states.” He said three Democratic governors in the South had said, “If you go near Martin Luther King, your state is gone to us.” So, he’s very worried about that. But when Jack Kennedy asks Robert Kennedy to do something, he will do it. And even though Kennedy was steaming mad about this decision to get closer to Martin Luther King, he will make the phone call to the judge, get things fixed up, although it is a convoluted case. There’s a phone call, before Kennedy’s phone call, to the governor of Georgia, to smooth things and to make everything go well, because Bobby could be very abrasive. It could have gone very badly.
But the story is that Bobby Kennedy had a sort of change of heart and blah, blah, blah, but it was simply not true. It was a matter of pure calculation. Then, what the JFK campaign does is to flood the black neighborhoods in the North with, I think, either two or four million copies of leaflets, talking about what has JFK done for blacks, what has he done for Martin Luther King. What has Nixon done? Nothing. And then, also putting a lot of ads on the black radio stations. This was risky for the white vote in the South, but they do not pay a great deal of attention to it. I think they are distracted by the debates which are going on at that point.
Rubenstein: As we mentioned, one of the larger ironies of this election is that Kennedy, who was always harping on vigor and energy and youth, was, in addition to being one of the sickliest presidents in American history, a user of amphetamines -- Dexedrine, in particular -- during both the campaign and his presidency. A friend of his connected him with a doctor in New York, Max Jacobson, who was known as “Dr. Feelgood.” He would later lose his license. But talk about JFK’s secret visit to Jacobson’s office on September 14th, 1960. That’s just two days after his appearance in Houston and twelve days before the first debate.
Pietrusza: Yeah, campaigning is tough, [laughs] and Kennedy is feeling weary. He may not have been in Walter Reed hospital for two weeks, but he’s winding down -- but not winding down so much that he can’t go to a party one night with one of his old chums.
And the next morning he’s really dragging, but his friend is full of vigor. And JFK says, “Hey, you’re looking pretty good. How do you do that?” And he’s, like, “Well, if you really want to know, there’s this doctor in New York…” And he’s a doctor not only who can provide you with all sorts of things which were probably still legal then -- although a bit, shall we say, sketchy -- but a doctor to celebrities. So, if you were to go into his waiting room, you might see any number of Hollywood and Broadway stars there. And this is what is conveyed to Jack Kennedy. He also hears about it from one of the photographers who is assigned to his campaign. So, now he’s got two opinions on this.
The fellow who tells Jack Kennedy about it originally is like, “Eh, maybe this is okay for me but maybe not for a presidential candidate. Let’s clear this with Bobby.” And Bobby says, “Okay, give it a try.” So, the office of Dr. Feelgood is cleared out one day. There’s nobody there except the receptionist, or the secretary. And Jack Kennedy, very privately, goes in for the checkup, gets the patented treatment, and feels really much -- very invigorated for much of the campaign.
Of course, these things don’t last. They have bad side effects. Later on, he’s going to bring Max Jacobson to Europe, when JFK is meeting with Nikita Khrushchev at Vienna. And one of the low points of the Kennedy presidency was Kennedy’s performance in Vienna versus Khrushchev. Kennedy is, quite possibly because of these treatments, not on the ball at that meeting. One of theories is Nikita Khrushchev decides, having taken a look at Kennedy, firsthand, sized him up and saying, “This boy ain’t got it” -- to go and put missiles into Cuba. So, these things have long-lasting effects.
Rubenstein: All right, so let's get into the debates. I watched all four again recently, and I tried to place myself in the role of an undecided voter in 1960 and just focus on the rhetoric and establish for myself the policy differences between these two men. And honestly, I found few, if any, especially on foreign policy. Again, optics aside, and Nixon’s kind of cadaverous appearance in the first debate, put that aside. You get the sense of two like-minded Cold Warriors sort of nibbling around the edges on policy -- or do you see differences on substance?
Pietrusza: I’ve taken to calling this election the “Seinfeld election.” It’s an election almost about nothing. Where are the stark differences? They aren’t there. Nixon was never as conservative as, I think, either his allies or his enemies thought he was. Kennedy was trending more liberal, but he wasn’t really there yet, until he got to the White House, I think. You know, they’re not really going into policy matters about healthcare or minimum wages. There are differences, but they’re not yelling and screaming differences. Eisenhower’s warning, which everyone remembers now, about a military-industrial complex -- Jack Kennedy is one of the prime offenders in thinking that we need to build these things up much more. So, he’s a Cold Warrior. Nixon’s a Cold Warrior. As Nixon kept saying in the first 18 minutes of the first debate, “Senator Kennedy and I, we both have the same goals.” In many cases, that was very much true.
Rubenstein: I recently read an article, published a few days after the election, that quoted Ronald Reagan, who was still an actor at that point but a Nixon supporter. And he said that simply by agreeing to debate Kennedy, by appearing with him as an equal four times, that Nixon had, essentially, elevated Kennedy’s stature. Reagan compared it to Clark Gable co-starring with an unknown, which could do nothing for Gable except diminish him and would certainly elevate the unknown.
Now Kennedy -- due not so much to his record in Congress, which was undistinguished, but to the massive publicity efforts funded by his father’s almost limitless budget -- was not unknown, certainly. But Vice President Nixon was better known, and his approval ratings were, actually, fairly high -- especially after that televised Kitchen Debate with Khrushchev in the summer of 1959. So, do you agree with Reagan, David, that Nixon made a mistake agreeing to the debates in the first place? And why did he agree to them?
Pietrusza: That’s a very complex question. Kennedy wanted the debates because he knew it would raise his stature and, I think, he thought he would do pretty well, and -- at least, in that first debate -- he certainly did. Even though Joe Kennedy had a lot of money, the Democratic party could have used some more. So, this is four hours of national TV, and not just any national TV, but where 70 or 80 million people are watching that first one and the fourth one. So, you’re getting huge numbers of eyeballs. Nixon does raise Kennedy’s stature, but the consensus seems to be that, eventually -- well, he realized that if he didn’t do it, and if he didn’t do if after Frank Stanton, the head of NBC, came up with the idea for a great debate -- it was one thing if Kennedy was pushing him, but once one of the networks started to push him…
You know, if the League of Women Voters want you and your opponent to show up, and you say no, then, all of a sudden, you look like the coward. It’s a macho issue. This is the word that some of his advisors and friends use. Also, he was a debater in college; he was very good at it. He had risen to the House of Representatives and to the Senate by debates against his opponents -- Helen Gahagan Douglas for the Senate -- so, he figured he could do it. Now, Jack Kennedy was also experienced in debates, and he had debated Henry Cabot Lodge on live TV in 1952. He debated Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary, and he debated Lyndon Baines Johnson, I mean, a very impromptu event before the Massachusetts and Texas delegations at the Democratic National Convention in 1960 in Los Angeles.
Rubenstein: Looking at these two, very different personalities, Nixon and Kennedy, there’s something almost poignant about the way Nixon seemed to look at Kennedy. You get the sense of a guy, in Nixon, with a bit of an inferiority complex, you know, who had worked his way up from poverty, kind of bedazzled, almost, by this super-wealthy celebrity-politician with movie-star good looks. You almost get the sense of Nixon seeking his approval at times -- much too agreeable, I think, in that first debate, trying to take the high road, playing the statesman. Whereas Kennedy really sneered at Nixon behind his back and was openly contemptuous on the stump. So, I see Nixon, in these debates, at least the first one, being way too polite and kind of waiting in vain for reciprocation. Would you agree with that assessment?
Pietrusza: He’s certainly way too nice at the beginning of the first debate, doesn’t really get more aggressive until the second debate, when he does very well, and the third debate, and may even have won the fourth debate. There’s a story that Kennedy is so displeased after his performance in the fourth debate, that he punches the wall of his green room. So, [laughs] winners rarely do that. Nixon never seems to have any great animus towards Kennedy. He’s known as a tough, hardball kind of guy, but he does seem sort of soft toward Kennedy. They had kind of debated. I think they debated the Taft-Hartley Act. When they first came to the Congress, they shared a train, a sleeper car up to Pennsylvania, and when they were freshman congressmen. So, they knew each other from the beginning of their congressional careers. Joe Kennedy had given money to Nixon’s 1950 campaign, and I think Jack Kennedy was pulling for him as well.
As things go on, and as the rivalry increases, Nixon reserve remains in place, or his lack of animus, but Kennedy’s only grows. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because, in 1952, you couldn’t be sure that Richard Nixon would ever be the guy standing in your way. You know, no sitting vice president had ever been nominated for the presidency since Martin Van Buren, after Andrew Jackson. So, the vice presidency was not the road to the presidency then. You could afford to be nice to Richard Nixon until he appeared to be the roadblock in your path.
I had the pleasure of seeing Jack Kennedy campaign in 1960. He came to my hometown of Amsterdam, New York, which was, even then, a very depressed community. The big manufacturers had moved out maybe five years before that. And Kennedy was -- he appeared in a parking lot, which was filled, at noontime, and he had the Kennedy charm. He said, “I’m so glad that so many of you came out on your lunch hour. I’m here on my lunch hour too.”
In doing my 1948 book, Harry Truman would tailor his talks to where he was. And Tom Dewey would not; pure cookie-cutter. Now, Jack Kennedy was using the Truman model. He knew exactly where he was. He knew what the issues were. He knew that you should talk about increasing the minimum wage because so many people in town were now on the minimum wage. He knew you should talk about pollution because we were on the Mohawk River, which was seriously polluted back then -- until Nelson Rockefeller cleaned it up, and the Hudson. And he talked about how, in the mill towns around Boston, they were switching to hi-tech and were turning themselves around, and he hoped that Amsterdam, New York could. And then he talked about the meaning of what it meant to be on minimum wage in a menial job in New York City, how you had to struggle. And then he talked about the importance of the vote, and how a vote was no good until you went out and used it. So he was, all in all, very good.
You know, people of lower means do look up to people of success. What’s the story? Is it in the book, or am I just remembering it’s in the book? Where Kennedy is campaigning at a factory…
Rubenstein: Yeah, that's in the book.
Pietrusza: And one of the guys at the front gate says, “Is it true that your father is one of the richest men in America and you’ve never really worked at anything in your life?” And Kennedy goes, “Well, uh, yes, uh, that’s true.” And the guy says, “Well, you haven’t missed anything.” [laughs]
Rubenstein: Yes. I love that story. All right, getting down to the election itself, just under 113,000 votes was the difference in the popular vote. The electoral college was 303 to 219 for Kennedy. But there’s always been talk of voter fraud that year, in Chicago and in parts of Texas as well. Now, even if Illinois had been overturned, that would not have put Nixon over the top. But if both Illinois and Texas had been overturned, that would've won it for Nixon. So, first of all, having done all your research, what’s your sense of how extensive the voter fraud really was? And why did Nixon choose not to pursue some sort of serious investigation or recount, at least in those two states?
Pietrusza: Well, those two states are controlled by Democrats. And what’s the mechanism? And how are you really going to overturn that? The precedent for overturning elections were, generally, United States Senate elections, and you might not seat someone. Those are a different thing than not having a president for a few months if things get tied up. And then, of course, does the legislature just name the electors, and it doesn’t matter what the popular vote was at some point? So, it all gets very involved. And do you then cast yourself as a sore loser? Nixon is able to come back after that. He’s able to come back after, you know, losing the governorship of California in ’62.
But it was the case, in Chicago in 1960, where The Chicago Tribune -- admittedly, a Republican paper -- is running news stories about voter fraud, about people being registered in vacant lots and empty apartments. And the reason for this is not to steal the presidential election. It’s because there was a fellow named Adamowski, who was a former ally of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had broken with him. So Richard J. Daley wants to beat a fellow named Adamowski for state’s attorney. State’s attorney is a guy who can make trouble for a guy like Richard Daley, and if you have the right guy in that office, your life can become much easier. So, Daley really wants to beat Adamowski, and if he can do that and elect a president of the United States in the bargain, well, so much the better.
And also, JFK is having help, in Chicago, from mob elements, who may or may not be putting the muscle on people but are certainly helping to get the vote out. Now, there’s nothing illegal in getting the vote out. But I don’t think Nixon would have been able to come up with the evidence, either in Illinois or in Texas, to really overturn anything. But it’s a question I get all the time.
Rubenstein: Okay, final question, David, and you’ve been really generous with your time. You know, I’ve always felt that the roots of Watergate and the various dirty tricks played by Nixon’s operatives in that ’72 campaign can be found in the election of 1960. I think that Nixon remained intensely bitter about that result, and it justified, to an extent, but also exacerbated his natural paranoia to the point where he may have said, “You know, if someone’s going to stab somebody in the back,” metaphorically speaking, of course, “it's going to be me holding the knife, not them.” But what’s your assessment, David, of the long-term impact of the 1960 election on later events in Nixon’s career, especially Watergate?
Pietrusza: Well, one possibility is that the issue that I mentioned previously about the "Nixonburgers" -- did the Democratic National Committee have information about Nixon’s connection to Howard Hughes? That’s one of the possibilities. I mean, what were they looking for? Were they just looking for things to see what they could find, or were they on a specific mission? And of course, how far up did the orders come from for the initial break-in? It didn’t seem to come from Nixon. We were talking about Nixon going into that debate because he wanted to look macho. I think that there’s a lot of macho in campaign politics, where they try to be tough, they try to show how ruthless they are, and it can lead to a great deal of trouble. And once you’ve lost once and you’ve lost twice, I think it did make him extremely bitter and determined to do what he could so he wouldn’t be a three-time loser.
Rubenstein: The book is called 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies. Pick it up. It’s beautifully written, and along with its insights into the process, it delivers the dirt as well, of which there’s no shortage with these particular personalities. Very entertaining book. David, thanks so much for being part of the show. I really appreciate it.
Pietrusza: Well, thank you.
Rubenstein: A quick look at our next episode, right after this. [Music]
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Coming up on Episode 5 of Real Time 1960s, the first of a 2-part episode about one of the primary organizers and facilitators of the Nazi genocide, Adolf Eichmann, who, 60 years ago today, was awaiting trial in Jerusalem. And rather than focus on a single event of the ‘60s, our next episode, called "Crimes and Flight," will cover a much longer stretch of time, from 1944 to about 1959, and then part 2 will cover 1959 to 1962. So, this is something I think you’re really going to want to hear. It's fascinating. It's disturbing. It's important. And it all gets underway next time with "Adolf Eichmann, part 1, Crimes and Flight."
Don’t forget to visit us at realtime1960s.com for our timeline, each and every podcast, links to social media, how to reach us directly, everything you need to know about this brand-new project, this portal into the past that we are creating. Thanks so much for joining us. Take care, and I'll see you soon.