The Myths of The Kennedys Part 3
JFK’s 1960 Campaign: Where The Myth Begins and the Truth Lies
Theodore White’s landmark Making of the President series are, for the record, as good as everyone tells you they are. White was a brilliant political journalist and was very capable of accurately portraying the mood of both America and politics during the 1960s and 70s. There was a level of evenhandedness when he looked at many campaigns as well as insights that, even more than sixty years later, still hold up today. It does not mean he was perfect even in these publications — he never gave enough significance to outsiders like George Wallace and he never seemed to grasp just how monstrous Nixon was, even though he had more access to him than any other journalist did — but the books still read extremely well to this day. And his inaugural book in the series about the 1960 campaign is one of the best pieces of political journalism ever created. He was willing to devote time and energy to all seven candidates who played a role in the 1960 campaign, and while he spent the majority of his time with Kennedy and Nixon, that did not mean he didn’t recognize the abilities of men such as Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson, both of whom he would later right were among the most qualified candidates he ever met who never became President.
But White was a human being and though he may have sworn to a guise of impartiality, it did not make him immune to the Kennedy charm. I believe that bias have blinded him to certain events that were going on in the Kennedy campaign himself that overshadowed how he looked at so many campaigns to come. In particular one can draw a comparison to how he viewed how conservatives took over the Republican party establishment to get the nomination for Barry Goldwater in 1964 to the Kennedy approach to getting the nomination four years earlier.
In the former case, his view of Goldwater’s campaigners taking the party away from the Eastern Establishment — primarily led by Nelson Rockefeller — is viewed throughout the book as the equivalent of a hostile takeover, taking control of the party to promote their candidate and their agenda. In the latter book, White looks the way the Kennedy clan and their followers did the same thing from the Democratic establishment with something that borders on admiration. The contemporary observer might have argued that Kennedy’s campaign deserved more credit because it led to victory for his party and in Goldwater’s case, it led to a total disaster for his, and there’s some truth to that. But aside from that, there is truly no difference between the planning of the Kennedys and the conservatives. Both groups of followers took the way the power of the bosses to nominate who they wants and put their candidate in front. And there’s actually an argument Goldwater’s followers were at least more purely motivated than Kennedys. The conservatives of that era had a cause in mind and were determined to take over the party to promote that cause. The only cause the Kennedys had at the time — and for much of the years to come — was that of the Kennedys, and as we shall see, they were always willing to do whatever it took to get there.
Much of this became clear in the primary campaign against Hubert Humphrey. To repeat a statement I made in the previous article, Humphrey was a superior candidate to JFK in every way in 1960. He had served as mayor of Minneapolis and was concluding his second term in the senate in 1960. He had spoken out in favor of civil rights at the 1948 convention at a time when neither party (especially the Democrats) was willing to do so openly. He was as great a speaker as any of the Kennedys and had far more principles than they ever did. He also ardently believed in the abilities of Adlai Stevenson and would have gladly run with him in 1956 had Stevenson not thrown the convention open — and JFK had stolen the show. The problem was, he came from Minnesota and in 1960, there was no way that was going to be enough. Humphrey knew the chances were slim for the nomination — White quoted him as saying they were one in ten.
So like JFK, he ran in the primaries. Unlike JFK, he had no money and the Kennedys had millions. Humphrey said that while campaigning in Wisconsin, a jet flew overhead and he shouted out ‘Damn it, Jack, play fair!” and that pretty much summed up the real difference between Kennedy and Humphrey in Wisconsin in particular. Jack had his family and lots of money, and Humphrey had none. It should not have come as a shock that Kennedy won Wisconsin by twelve points — the problem was, given how the districts voted, the victory was essentially viewed as Kennedy only managing to win because he carried the Catholic vote. Humphrey viewed it as a moral victory and carried on to West Virginia, a state that at the time was 80 percent Protestant.
Even at the time, it’s worth noting that even if Humphrey won in West Virginia, he had no chance of getting the nomination after he lost in Wisconsin: the fact he couldn’t win in a neighboring state crushed hopes of his electability. Indeed, if Humphrey had gotten out right then, there’s a real chance the Kennedy machine might have stalled right there: the primary path that they were travelling would have been meaningless if there were no viable contenders challenging them. (Nixon, as I said in the first article, knew that not having a challenger had done damage to his campaign from the start.) Many in fact urged Humphrey to get out after Wisconsin, but he kept going. And the Kennedys demonstrated just how willing they were to destroy anyone they considered a threat.
They used Jack’s war record to accuse Humphrey of being a draft-dodger. They used Franklin Roosevelt, Jr, a very dirty minded whose career in elected office had ended years ago but because of his father’s name was still a force. FDR Junior had no problem utterly maligning Humphrey and saying that his father would have been proud of Kennedy in a state FDR had carried four times in landslides. There were also rumors of the Kennedys using their fortune to bribe voters, precinct captains and union leaders — all to destroy a man who didn’t have the campaign funds to pay $750 for a telethon. Kennedy destroyed Humphrey by a margin of more than 3 to 2. It is a measure of Humphrey’s personality that he was able to graciously concede and work with the Kennedy family for years to come. (Then again, he was already facing a tough reelection that year and no doubt he thought he needed all the support he could get.)
By July of 1960, the Kennedys work had been done and despite the maneuvers of LBJ and the impassioned nomination speech of Eugene McCarthy for Adlai Stevenson that set off an hour long demonstration on the floor, Kennedy was nominated on the first ballot. The choice of LBJ as his Vice President has been debated for decades to come, so it need not be deconstructed here. I will only repeat that it was done over the strenuous objects of Robert Kennedy and officially made the feud that had been simmering between the two for years unresolvable. The course of politics for the next decade was set in stone as much because of that feud than anything else.
That said, Kennedy’s choice of Johnson was probably the only one he could have made to ensure victory. Kennedy’s weakness was always the South, and considering Eisenhower’s inroads into it in the last two elections, there was no reason to assume it would return to the Democratic fold. If ever a vice presidential decision helped lead a president to victory, it was the choice of Johnson.
Now the Kennedys may have run one of the most full-blown media campaigns to that point and they had no problems using it to knock Nixon at every opportunity. They didn’t go nearly as negative as they could have, but it is worth reminding people of the two biggest deceptions they were telling America.
The first was, of course, Kennedys history as a philanderer, particularly with Marilyn Monroe, and more troubling Judith Campbell, who was at the time also sleeping with Sam Giancana, one of the biggest mob bosses at the time. You can argue about the press not revealing his infidelities, but the fact that he was possibly compromised by his involvement with the Mafia is one that absolutely should have come to light even then.
The second and more important one was Kennedy’s health. Kennedy was suffering from Addison’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the adrenal glands. Even had JFK not been killed, there is a very real chance that he would have not lived to a ripe old age or even that he would have been able to get beyond a presumptive second term without decreased mobility that might have forced him into a wheelchair before he was even fifty. The Kennedys managed to hide this fact from the press by stashing medicine that treated the symptoms all around the country. Every campaign stop JFK made for two years they made sure there was access to medicine. The press never learned about it until years after the fact. Considering one of the major factors about Kennedy’s campaign was his youth and vigor, the fact that this was built on a fundamental deception about his health is something that too many historians have decided to overlook.
Now at this point its worth comparing what the Kennedy campaign did right and the Nixon campaign did wrong to get to what must be the biggest point about the Kennedy myth:
Kennedy’s pick of Lyndon Johnson as Vice President helped him. Nixon’s choice hurt him. He picked Henry Cabot Lodge, a Massachusetts republican who was part of a political dynasty of its own, and whose seat in the Senate Kennedy had narrowly won in 1952. Nixon clearly hoped Lodge would help him in New England, and it did not — Lodge could not help the Republicans even carry Massachusetts.
The Kennedy campaign chose only certain battlegrounds to campaign in. Nixon chose to campaign in all fifty. Both were viable strategies, but Nixon’s devotion to his may have hurt him more than it helped.
Kennedy appeared to have won the first and most viewed of the Presidential debates. The comparative performance of each candidate in all four is hard to measure, but there’s little question that his appearance compared with Nixon made him seem like a more viable choice in the eyes of millions.
Kennedy chose to intervene when Martin Luther King was arrested and held in Georgia, a choice that Nixon as I wrote earlier on, chose not to make. Martin Luther King’s father committed to getting African-American to vote for JFK.
The Nixon campaign did not use Eisenhower — still the most popular man in the country — to campaign until the final two weeks. Considering that Eisenhower’s stumping may have helped boost Nixon in some northern states, Nixon clearly blundered here.
In short, given all of these decision by both parties you would have thought Kennedy would have won in a landslide. Yet when all the votes were counted, the difference between the two men in the popular vote was one-tenth of one percentage point. (Because of the electoral math, the margin looked slightly bigger: Kennedy received 303 electoral votes; Nixon 219, a Southern Separatist named Harry Byrd took the remaining 15 .)
People have debated ever since about the fairness of Kennedy’s victory, particularly in Texas and Illinois. Some will argue that even if there were questionable decisions in both states, the recounts made proved nothing. Others will argue just as strongly that both states were known for corruption in the machines for decades and were probably good at hiding it. What can not be denied is that whatever love America had towards JFK was not apparent by the final vote count of 1960.
And from a historic context, the Kennedy election is one of the least successful victories the Democratic Party had in the 20th Century. It had been forty-four years since a Democrat candidate had won by a margin this narrow in the electoral college when Woodrow Wilson had barely beaten Charles Evans Hughes, 277 electoral votes to 254. For the remainder of the 20th century only one Democrat President would end up receiving fewer electoral votes than Kennedy: Jimmy Carter, who received 297 when he defeated Gerald Ford in 1976. Even in the last election this close: Harry Truman’s defeat of Thomas Dewey in 1948, Truman had actually won by two million popular votes. By contrast, Kennedy had won by just over 100,000 out of 67 million votes cast.
It’s also worth noting that of all the Democratic victories to that point, JFK’s had no coattails. Indeed, Kennedy had come in with the opposite of a mandate. The Democrats lost twenty-one seats in the House. It wasn’t as big a loss in a Senate — the Democrats only lost 2 seats — but it was one of the poorest results for the Democrats to that point in the twentieth century. Only the massive majorities they already made their standing basically alright. The Democrats still had 262 seats in the House and 64 in the Senate. Still, the party elders who must have had doubts about Kennedy being the head of the ticketed would not necessarily have had them assuaged by the results of the election. Given how the previous three Congressional elections had gone for the Democrats, some of them were no doubt wondering what would have happened if Humphrey or Johnson or even Stevenson had been at the head of the ticket.
In the next article in the series, I will discuss the Presidency of JFK. And I have to confess that after some discussion, my opinions about how much Kennedy achieved — and how much he didn’t — have been moderated somewhat.