As the excitement of the Democratic National Convention begins to ebb, it is just beginning for the Republicans. Dwight D. Eisenhower has now completed two terms in office, so a new candidate must be selected. In this case, the new candidate is Eisenhower’s Vice-President, Richard Milhouse Nixon.
After Nixon is officially named the candidate, he selects for his running mate Henry Cabot Lodge. Given Lodge is to be on the ticket, it would appear Kennedy will again see history repeat itself, to some degree. This time, however, instead of running opposite Lodge for vice-president, Kennedy is running against Nixon for the top slot.
Once the two tickets are settled and the candidates take to the campaign trail, Kennedy challenged Nixon to four presidential debates, the first in American history to be televised. Nixon did not hesitate to accept the challenge.
Some would now ask, “Nixon, why did you do that? You were, at that time, the incumbent and had much less to prove than Kennedy did.” The likely reason for Nixon’s acceptance is thought to be he was a skilled debater and there were times he felt he knew better than his advisers as to which direction he should precede. Nixon also felt, having watched Jack’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention that the comments Kennedy made were done so in a manner making it too difficult for the average television viewer to fully grasp. Thus, he took the challenge.
As preparations were made for the debate, and subsequently the election, a big difference was noticed with respect to the way the two candidates prepared for what was ahead. Jack immediately began to gather knowledgeable advisers around him and sought their direction as to how he should handle the situations facing him. Nixon, however, did not trust people and disliked “showing his cards” when the situation did not demand it.
September 26, 1960, political history was made when the first debate took to the air. 70 million people gather around their sets to watch the event. In just over 100 years, presidential debating had changed dramatically, from the days of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 to Nixon and Kennedy in 1960.
This would not turn out to be the best night for Nixon. When he arrived at the studio in Chicago, he banged his knee badly as he got out the car in which he had traveled. (Of course, it would have to be the knee which had recently been operated on.) During the recovery period, Nixon lost a good bit of weight and it caused him to look slightly emaciated on television. He also chose a light gray suit, which in black and white made him look pale. Finally, he turned down the idea of any makeup to help enhance his coloring a bit.
Behind the podium on the other side of the stage, Jack Kennedy stood dressed in a dark suit, which enhanced his appearance in the black and white broadcast. Coupled with his Hyannis Port tan, (which was the reason he turned down make-up), Kennedy’s appearance presented the viewers an impression of strength and leadership. Rose Kennedy later commented that Jack came across as a young Lincoln.
In addition to being broadcast on television, the debate was also heard over the radio. When all was said and done, polling of the two audiences rendered very different verdicts. Those who watched the debate on television were fully convinced Kennedy won; however, when those who listened to the radio were polled, the majority of this group voted in favor of Nixon.
Over the course of the next three debates, Nixon’s delivery greatly improved, but as in many horse races, when a competitor is slow out of the starting gate, the likelihood of victory is slim. Jack’s performance during the first debate so wowed a large number of viewers that Nixon’s improvement had little effect on opinions. However, though he may not have come across as strongly as Kennedy, Nixon was not to be ruled out.
In October 1960, the two campaigns were neck-and-neck in the polls. The candidates’ personalities now begin to come to the forefront and voters see a major difference in the two. While Kennedy kept his cool, Nixon became a bit frazzled. His mannerisms were slouchy, he was still easily angered and the ashen appearance refused to leave. Some would later describe the difference as Nixon being photographed in black and white while Kennedy was seen in living color.
Kennedy was also constantly on the move, racking up miles along with votes. Within 10 months of campaigning, Jack traveled 75,000 miles. When Nixon received a shot-in-the-arm from President Eisenhower, Kennedy scheduled even more speeches and forced himself to operate on less sleep.
During this time, tensions around the country were strong with respect to civil rights in the South, in addition to the Soviet Union and Cuba internationally. When the Soviets shot down an American spy plane in May 1960 and captured the pilot, President Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, convened a summit, only to have it collapse. If that was not enough, Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba, was rattling a few of his sabers as well. This seemed a perfect time for John Kennedy’s “New Frontier”.
Tuesday, November 8, 1960, America went to the polls. After casting their votes in Boston, Jack and Jackie Kennedy returned to Hyannis Port to await the results. Brother Bobby set up a virtual command center in his house, with dozens of telephones, teletype machines and plenty of coffee for the press. The election then became a wait-and-see situation.
As the night progressed, the results continue to show a toss-up between the two candidates. Jack was up one minute by winning Connecticut, then down the next when he slipped in the farm belt of the Midwest. Rather than get upset, Jack chose to bide his time, then headed to bed in the early morning hours while the election remained a toss-up.
A number of states were still undecided, including: Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nixon’s home turf, California. Eventually, California is awarded to its native son, and the other three labeled with Kennedy’s name. These states offer the votes needed to put Kennedy over the top and at 4:30 a.m., a knock is heard on the door of the Kennedy home as Secret Service agents arrive to begin their assigned task of protecting the new president-elect. Jack has not only won the election, but he has also earned the title of “youngest president” and also “first Catholic president”. When she awakes the next morning, daughter Caroline greets her father with a hug and addresses him as “Mr. President.” Though Jack won, he did not receive the landslide the Kennedys had hoped for. Nixon offered him a real challenge and the results showed Jack’s win to be by only a slim margin.
With the election won, more good news is in store for Jack before November ends. John F. Kennedy, Jr. arrives on the scene November 25th. The young soon-to-be first family now headed off to Palm Beach for some much needed R&R – Jack from the election and Jackie from childbirth. While there, Jack began the plans for his new administration.
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We have all made mistakes, but Dante tells us that Divine Justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a party living in the spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a party frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
John F. Kennedy – 1960