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Thanks to TV debates, Kennedy wins in 1960

How Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election: a fateful decision to face Democratic candidate John Kennedy in televised debates and a bungled strategy for wooing black voters.
Image: John F. Kennedy
Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy launches his presidential bid in January of 1960.Getty Images file
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The 1960 campaign gave American politics three legacies that have influenced elections ever since.

First, the iconic image of the debonair candidate representing a new generation: Democrat John F. Kennedy, the senator from Massachusetts.

Second, the televised debates as the campaign’s defining events: Many journalists and voters judged Kennedy to have done better than his Republican rival, Vice President Richard Nixon.

And third, the romantic narrative of the campaign: Theodore H. White’s classic The Making of the President 1960, which helped create the Kennedy aura and set the standard for future campaign journalism.

And the 1960 election resembles this year’s contest in three ways:

First, one of the protagonists, Kennedy, was young (43 years old), suave, and the favorite of many people in the news business.

Second, the election took place at the end of a two-term Republican presidency. But unlike President Bush today, Dwight Eisenhower was ending his presidency in 1960 as a respected and even a beloved figure for most Americans.

And finally, like Sen. Barack Obama trying to break the color line in presidential elections this year, Kennedy was trying to break the religious bar: The tradition that held that no Roman Catholic could be elected president.

After clinching the nomination at the convention in Los Angeles, Kennedy defied the liberals in his party as well as most of his closest advisors by picking Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, as his running mate.

Powerful Southerners, such as Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, persuaded Kennedy that he needed Johnson on the ticket to keep the South Democratic.

The Kennedy-Johnson ticket ended up carrying six of the 11 states of the old Confederacy.

Kennedy addresses religion issue
At a decisive moment in the fall campaign, Kennedy decided to challenge the anti-Catholic prejudice that threatened to sink his bid for the White House.

In 1959, one out of four voters interviewed by the Gallup Poll said they would not cast their vote for any candidate who was a Catholic.

Unwilling to cede so much of the electorate to Nixon, Kennedy went to Houston to address a gathering of Protestant ministers.

“I believe in an America where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be a Catholic) how to act… where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind,” he told them.

He pledged to make decisions as president “without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate.”

Two weeks after delivering that speech, Kennedy faced Nixon in Chicago for the first televised presidential debate.

Reading the transcripts of the four Kennedy-Nixon debates today, nearly 50 years after they took place, one is struck by how pedestrian they now seem.

On many issues the differences between Nixon and Kennedy were matters of degree, not of fundamental principle.

In some ways, Kennedy and Nixon not dissimilar
And the two weren’t vastly different in their resumes: Nixon was only four years older than Kennedy, both men were veterans of the Second World War, both had won election to Congress in 1946, and both were staunch anti-Communists.

Of course, Kennedy was the scion of one of America's wealthiest and most politically influential families. Nixon came from humble roots, a fact he sometimes mentioned in a maudlin way on the campaign trail.

Nixon argued that he was the more tested candidate on the issue of war and peace, having traveled the world conferring with heads of state and having gotten the better of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at their impromptu “kitchen debate” in Moscow in 1959.

But it was the image on the screen on the night of Sept. 26, 1960 that counted.

Kennedy looked tanned and relaxed.

According to Theodore H. White, Nixon was weary, having campaigned without letup since recovering from a staph infection that had put him in the hospital.

He looked “tense, almost frightened, at turns glowering and occasionally haggard-looking to the point of sickness.”

According to the moderator of the first debate, Howard K. Smith, “It was apparent to Nixon that he had made a mistake. He should not have agreed to debate. He was downcast. He knew it was a mistake.”

A tormented relationship with Ike
Eisenhower’s dutiful subordinate for eight years, Nixon sometimes seemed to have a tormented relationship with the president.

In a press conference in August, a reporter asked Ike to identify one major policy suggestion of Nixon’s that he had adopted.

“If you give me a week, I might think of one,” Eisenhower replied.

Asked about that comment during the first debate, Nixon suggested that “if you know the president, that was probably a facetious remark.”

Wanting to prove that he was his own man, Nixon limited Eisenhower’s role as a campaigner to only the final eight days of the campaign.

“The fact that the president wanted to do so much more, the fact that Eisenhower, with his magic name, sat waiting for a call to participate that never came, still rankles bitterly among Eisenhower men, and probably in the memory of the ex-president himself,” wrote White after the election.

Another error, in White’s view, was Nixon’s bungled strategy for winning black voters.

"Even more than the election of 1948, the outcome of 1960 was to be dependent on Negro votes," said White.

Under pressure from the liberal Republican governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon agreed to replace the cautious GOP platform plank on civil rights with a more progressive Rockefeller-sponsored one.

Which way for Nixon on civil rights?
A progressive stance on civil rights could benefit Nixon only in Northern states such as Illinois where there were large numbers of black voters.

(In 1960, officials in southern states kept many black people from registering and voting through a variety of barriers including poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation.)

But during the fall campaign Nixon “apparently could not decide whether he was campaigning for Northern electoral votes or Southern electoral votes,” White said, and he muddled his position on civil rights “alienating Northern Negro and Southern white, losing both along with the election.”

Kennedy also won the gratitude of black voters when he made a sympathy call to the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. King had been arrested and sent to a state prison in Georgia after taking part in a “sit-in” at an Atlanta restaurant.

With Illinois putting Kennedy over the top by a mere 8,858 votes out of 4.7 million, some Republicans alleged vote fraud by the Chicago Democratic machine.

The charges of fraud both in Illinois and in Texas “were too widespread, and too persistent, to be entirely without foundation,” wrote Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose.

But Nixon decided not to contest the election.

He was worried about the effect of a U.S. recount battle on young democracies in Africa and Asia — where the United States was vying with the Soviet Union for influence.

“I could think of no worse example for nations abroad, who for the first time were trying to put free electoral procedures into effect, than that of the United States wrangling over the results of our presidential election,” Nixon said.