(Note: I may accidentally give the impression here that I am in favor of election fraud under certain circumstances. Let me just say that I support and believe in our political processes, our laws, and our duly elected leaders. [Removes "HAIL ANTS" sign].)
You may remember Nixon as the twice-elected president who was forced to resign in 1974. Younger readers who paid some attention in history class probably know him as "that creepy one, who was president after all the Kennedys got killed and shit." Yes, it's true, America really did elect Richard Nixon president in 1968 and again in 1972; it also twice selected him as Vice-President under Dwight D. Eisenhower. The man ran for national office five times and won four of those contests, despite his creepiness, which is fairly awesome and sort of makes him the Bill Belichick of politics for that time period.
But Nixon did have his one defeat, and it came in a groundbreaking election campaign that featured the first extensive use and influence of television (including the first ever televised debates), was the first between candidates born in the 20th century, and determined which man was doomed to die from the "elected in year ending in 0" curse .
Nixon As Vice President
Nixon was very well known to the nation by 1960. As a congressman and senator from California, and then as Eisenhower's VP, Nixon was known for his anti-communism, his relentlessly attacking style of politics, and the occasional cheeseball stunt.
Although he did take a principled stand in favor of puppies.
Not only was the vice-presidency a more ceremonial position in those days (the next Dick to hold the office was much more powerful), but Nixon, as many administration insiders felt, suffered from a notable lack of respect from Eisenhower and his staff as well. Eisenhower didn't like Nixon, didn't really trust him, and mostly accepted him as his running mate in 1952 because Nixon was from the important state of California and had a strong reputation as a commie-baiting patriot. Understand--Richard Nixon never had a reputation for honesty or integrity.
"Ha ha ha. You recording this?"
"Ha ha ha ha. Damn right!"
But still, the position was to help him greatly as he sought the presidency.
The Road To Nomination
In 1960, only a handful of states held primaries, with votes of the common people selecting delegates to the nominating convention; most of the delegates were chosen by the important "party regulars" or "bosses" that controlled the party's electioneering machinery at the state level. These were often state and city politicians who rewarded the people who helped them gain office and stay there, and currying their favor was the key to winning the nomination. Nixon, vice-president and tirelessly partisan campaigner, had spent eight years doing just that, building up a vast store of IOU's. As such, he had no real competition for the nomination, although New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller considered running for a time. But when he dropped out, Nixon was relieved of the necessity to contest even one primary.
What Went So Horribly, Horribly Wrong
It's hard, really, to say anything went horribly, horribly wrong with a campaign that came (as we shall see) within an eyelash of denying the presidency to the legendary John F. Kennedy, American Icon. In fact, since the result was Richard Nixon not being elected, the whole event was basically right by definition. But, to try to see it from Nixon's perspective, why did he lose? Did his enemies conspire against him, or was that idea simply an early sign of the paranoia that grew to full flower during his White House years? Was it bad luck? Or was he just a generally wrong person? What happened?
Hurting Himself, Literally
No, Nixon didn't punch himself in the face, as he appears to be doing in the photo above. At least not in 1960. And certainly not as hard as I would have punched him. But he did, in September of that year, spend a reported nine days in the hospital with a staph infection in his leg, having injured it while entering a car. And, due to the rigors of the campaign, he never really recovered his health until well after election day. This resulted in a haggard, underweight, generally exhausted candidate. He also made the situation much, much worse by insisting on visiting all 50 states during the campaign, as he had pledged to do at the outset. Not only was this idea sketchy from a strategic standpoint (on the last weekend of the campaign he took the time to fly to Alaska, which had only three electoral votes) the extra travel wore him down further and, in turn, was to have an enormous effect on...
History will long remember the first presidential debate to be televised in America; legends have grown up around it and, because of the closeness of the election, it is often considered to have made the ultimate difference in the contest.
And this is all basically true--with a few incidentals not often considered.
In fact, there were four debates, with the first, on 26 September, covering domestic policy. And this is the one that is usually noted as being the decisive one.
Nixon, tired and ill, dragging around a bum leg (reinjured on the morning of the debate), was simply not in condition for a TV appearance, especially since he would be contrasted with the tanned, rested and ready John F. Kennedy. Add to that some hot TV lighting, a constant five-o'clock shadow made famous by countless cartoonists, and Nixon was all set for a meltdown. Literally.
While some stories claim that Nixon used no makeup whatsoever, writer Theodore White in The Making Of The President 1960 reported that he used something called "Lazy Shave," a powder used to hide whisker growth. The powder mingled with Nixon's sweat and made his pallor look even worse.
And, to put it delicately, Nixon never really projected the image of strong, confident leader. To put it not so delicately, here is famed political guru and TV producer Roger Ailes talking about Nixon, whose later campaigns he worked on:
"Let's face it. A lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he's a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was forty-two years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it. He'd always have his homework done and he'd never let you copy.
"Now you put him on television, you've got a problem right away. He's a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit alll bunched up and starts running around, saying 'I want to be President.' This is how he strikes some people."
(From The Selling Of The President 1968 by Joe McGinniss.)
All Kennedy really had to do was to stand there and look healthy, confident, and competent, look presidential and he would be way ahead of the game. Actually saying anything interesting or even coherent about domestic policy was of lesser importance.
"Judo chop! Hiyaw! Hoo! Haw!"
The election of 1960 was the closest of the 20th century until the 2000 election, assuming you buy the Alex Trebec crap about 2000 being part of that century. Out of 68 million votes cast, Kennedy's margin was a mere 113,000. He took the electoral vote, 303 to 219, while Nixon carried 26 states to Kennedy's 22 (Sen. Harry F. Byrd of Alabama took the votes from his home state and six of 11 from neighboring Mississippi).
Although the electoral margin appeared more clear-cut than the popular vote, had Nixon won two more of the larger states, say Texas (lost by 46,000) and Illinois (less than 9,000) he would have carried a majority of electors and presumably would have become president.
In short, it was exactly the sort of result that could cause a man with paranoid tendencies to stew in his own foul, fetid juices for eight years while vowing to never let that happen again no matter what it takes. This feeling would have likely been exacerbated greatly by...
Rumors persist to this day that massive voting fraud took place in Kennedy's favor in two states: Illinois, where Chicago Mayor Richard Daley counted votes by dead people, and Texas, where VP nominee Lyndon Johnson controlled the machinery and counted the votes of farm animals. There may be some truth to these stories, and it's always acceptable to speculate about Lyndon Johnson and farm animals (he was known to imply nasty enough things about his opponents, after all), but there is no conclusive evidence that Nixon was the victim of more chicanery than was Kennedy. And again, we're talking about Nixon here. "Wrong" is a pretty subjective term, when you really think about it.
Or when you look at this guy.
Nixon, in his memoirs, said that he did consider disputing the election due to these supposed "irregularities," but chose not to because of the divisive effect it would have had on the country at a critical time in its history.
Now, some may find the idea that Richard Nixon, the man who as president used the CIA to protect his underlings from criminal investigation, who used the IRS to harass his political "enemies," actually chose not to dispute an election in which he believed himself to have been cheated, because it might have harmed the country, to be quite laughable.
"I did it for the good of the nation. If you want details, pull my finger."
And well, yeah. It is.
But Nixon was nothing if not persistent, and after sitting on the sidelines in 1964, re-entered the ring in 1968 and was finally able to relieve what Hunter S. Thompson referred to as the worst case of "presidential blue balls" in American political history. Although forced to resign before his second term passed the halfway point, he is not without his honors.
Others in the They Also Ran Good series: