This excellent, well-written history of the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon presidential election will delight and intrigue fans of history — and followers of the present election.
‘1960 LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies’
AUTHOR: David Pietrusza
PUBLISHER: Union Square Press, 544 pages, ISBN 978-1-40027-6114-0
HOW MUCH: $24.95
Pietrusza, an Amsterdam native who now lives in Glenville, has a quick, nimble writing style. He has written many books, including three baseball histories and a history of the 1920 election.
His writing makes it easy to follow the story line and to keep track of the candidates, campaign staff and others who were key to the election. He takes a story to which we know the ending and makes it as suspenseful as a thriller.
Reading “1960,” I felt as if I were in the middle of the campaign, coming to each new event with the surprise, elation or concern that the candidates and their campaigns experienced. There were times that I thought Nixon was going to win.
The book is organized partly chronologically and partly topically. It opens with Kennedy announcing his candidacy and ends with an appraisal of his career, along with those of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
In the midst of the chronology, Pietrusza offers biographical sketches of key characters, explains the mechanics of contemporary political polling, primaries and conventions, and considers how ideology and geography shaped the electorate and the campaign.
The reader will wonder: How are the 1960 and 2008 elections similar and how are they different? Pietrusza could not answer these questions. He finished the book before the 2008 primaries and conventions. But a few comparisons and contrasts will give readers a sense of the book.
In 1960 and 2008, Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush, respectively, were leaving office after a final term. Pietrusza writes, “The Kennedy candidacy would be based on newness, freshness, boldness, vigor, a determined look to the future . . .” This year, Barack Obama is also running as an agent of change.
Kennedy experienced some surprises in the primaries. Wisconsin was a must-win state for him, as it was next to Hubert Humphrey’s Minnesota. With money, organization and new polling techniques, Kennedy’s campaign was very active in Wisconsin. But their polling was inaccurate and it led them to put their resources in the wrong parts of the state; Kennedy barely beat Humphrey.
This narrow victory, Pietrusza explains, compelled Kennedy to run an active campaign in West Virginia, a Protestant state where it was feared Kennedy’s Catholicism would sink him.
He won West Virginia, partly because of his willingness to address religion head-on. His speech to clergy in Houston is cited as a turning point in the role of religion in American politics. Pietrusza persuasively argues that Kennedy developed many of those themes in his speech in West Virginia.
Today, nearly every state has a primary; in 1960, fewer than half had primaries. The 1960 primary season started March 3 in New Hampshire and ended July 1 in California — in contrast to the more compressed 2008 season.
In 2008, presidential candidates campaign in as many states as they can afford to. In 1960, a governor or senator was a favorite son. He arrived at a convention with his state’s delegates pledged to him and negotiated for a position in the administration or other favors. It was bad form for a national candidate to actively run against a favorite son; it was preferable to negotiate for support behind the scenes or at the convention.
The biggest difference between 1960 and 2008 is the effect of televised debates. Today, everyone assumes candidates will debate. But in 1960, there was no such tradition.
It is amazing to read how something everybody takes for granted had to be invented. We see how the 1960 debate format emerged from negotiations among the campaigns and candidates, as well as the requirements of television. Pietrusza reports that Nixon did poorly in the first debate; he campaigned intensely beforehand, injuring his knee along the way. He came to the debate exhausted and hurt. By contrast, Kennedy was rested and prepared.
Paradoxically, Pietrusza says, Nixon did better than Kennedy in the remaining three debates. However, his weak first debate did much damage he could not recover from.
Pietrusza offers many illuminating and funny details. On Election Day, Nixon sneaked away and spent the day driving with his military attache, a Secret Service agent and an L.A. Police detective. The quartet drove south from Los Angeles, stopping to see Nixon’s mother, visited Tijuana and San Juan Capistrano and then returned to Los Angeles.
During the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, LBJ’s daughter Luci went to Disneyland. When LBJ learned of her trip, he said, “We didn’t come to California for you to go to Disneyland.” “We didn’t come to California,” she replied, “for you to be vice president, either.”
In a recent conversation, I asked Pietrusza if his research offered any firm clues on who will win this year’s election. He discussed the physical demands campaigning places on candidates and how exhaustion might cause a slip-up.
He concluded by recalling, during his days of writing baseball history, how people would ask him about a big event such as the World Series. His answer to this sporting query applies just as easily to the present election: “I’m a historian,” he said with a quiet laugh, “not a prophet.”
NOTE: David Pietrusza will appear at the Bulmer Telecommunications Center auditorium at noon on Wednesday at Hudson Valley Community College, Troy . More information is available at 629-7336 or at www.hvcc.edu/voices.
The author will also appear for a signing at 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, at the Open Door bookstore, 128 Jay St., Schenectady.