The 1960 Election

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose's Essay

NO ONE CAN KNOW, either, which of the two candidates [Kennedy or Nixon] the American people chose in 1960. Charges of fraud in Texas and Illinois were too widespread, and too persistent, to be entirely without foundation. Nixon's daughters, his friends, and many of his supporters urged him to demand a recount in those states; so did the President [Eisenhower]. On November 30, Eisenhower called Attorney General [William] Rogers. The President "admitted that the election was a closed issue, but he felt we owed it to the people to assure them... that the federal government did not shirk its duty." But Rogers said he had talked to Nixon about an investigation, and Nixon was against it. Eisenhower let it drop.

A recount was never a possibility. It would have taken at least a year and a half in Cook County, Illinois, where Mayor Richard Daley had turned in an overwhelming Kennedy vote, and there were no provision whatever for a recount in Texas. Had Nixon demanded a recount, he might have thrown the government into chaos, and certainly would have prevented an orderly transfer of power. Besides, as he himself put it, "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, and even suggesting that the presidency itself could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box."

But whether circumstances forced Nixon's hand or not, there is no question that he was statesmanlike in defeat. Nor is there any question that this was his finest campaign. If he was on occasion extreme, and even irresponsible on the Cold War, if he was guilty of pitching his campaign on the issue of who would be tougher on the Communists instead of who would be most capable of finding a way to live with them in peace without surrender, he was no more so than Kennedy. Kennedy also exaggerated the so-called "missile gap."

On such issues as race, religion, or bringing Joe Kennedy's or Jack's girl friends into the campaign, Nixon was a model of propriety and statesmanship.

If Nixon had been declared the winner, our view today of the 1960 campaign would be wholly different. Instead of what might be called the Teddy White thesis—that Kennedy ran a brilliant campaign while Nixon committed blunder after blunder—we would have an interpretation that would stress what Nixon did right and Kennedy did wrong. With a shift of one-tenth of 1 percent of the national vote, we would be writing about a campaign in which Nixon peaked at exactly the right moment, while Kennedy peaked too soon. We would be praising Nixon for his shrewdness in accepting Kennedy's challenge to debate, congratulating him on his wisdom in staying away from the religious issue, admiring his good political sense in saving Ike until the last minute, blessing him for his insistence on a balanced budget, showering him with kudos for his determination to defend Quemoy and Matsu while criticizing Kennedy for calling for an invasion of Cuba. With a shift of a few thousand votes, Kennedy would have been the one torturing himself with thoughts of "What if...?" What if I'd spent more time in California? Been even more strident in asking "Who lost Cuba?" Taken a stronger stand on Quemoy and Matsu? Not pushed quite so hard on Medicare?

The point being that Nixon did so many things right. In spite of the great disparity in the numbers of registered Democrats and Republicans, he got half the votes. In direct competition with an opponent who was younger than he was, far more appealing physically, more dynamic, and richer, Nixon got half the votes. In spite of the vast gulf between the vote-getting abilities of Lyndon Johnson and Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon got half the votes. In spite of a series of bad breaks, ranging from the President's refusal to act against Castro through Ike's "give me a week" gaffe to King's arrest, Nixon got half the votes. He had to defend a record he had not made and did not endorse, a conservative record in a day of liberal expectations, and he still got half the votes.

It was a crucial election for the nation, and for Nixon. He had spent eight years preparing himself for it, and for the leadership role that victory would have given him. He could not be faulted for thinking that he deserved to win, nor for being bitter about his failure to do so, especially in view of the nature of the vote count in Illinois and Texas.

from Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913-1962 (1987) by historian Stephen E. Ambrose