The making of the President, 1960
Caution: For reasons which have to do totally with selfishness and almost pathetic nostalgia, I am going to be reviewing my memories of all the Presidential campaigns which I have followed, with a focus on their election nights. It is my sincere belief that no one other than myself will have any interest in this whatsoever, and even I am not that wild about reading these next blogs. But as John Adams once said To Thomas Jefferson, or perhaps it was the other way around, “You and I must explain ourselves to each other before we die.” The 48 years I will be covering should be able to help explain me to myself, hopefully before I die.
My earliest political memory is from the summer of 1960. I was between the first and second grade and the Political Conventions were about to get started. For reasons unknown to me, and which I am sure she always regretted, my mother pulled me aside in the kitchen one afternoon and showed me pictures of two men in a newspaper article.” These men are probably going to be the candidates for President this year, which one do you like ?” She asked. I looked down at the page and back and forth between the two men. Finally, I pointed at the darker haired one and said, “This one.” I had pointed at Richard Nixon, of whom I believe at the time I was unaware was Vice President of the United States. My mother frowned and pointed at the other man. “Don’t you think this one is really handsome ? “ she asked. “That’s John Kennedy.” To my memory, that was the first time I recall having heard that name. It was also the first time I knew that you could vote for a candidate based on his attractiveness (as opposed to which one had the darker hair).”No” I said, “I don’t think he is all that handsome.” “Well “ she said, “I guess you are for Nixon.”
So I started my campaign. My choice was vindicated when a family friend (Van Meter) came over for dinner on the night of the Nixon acceptance speech. Van was a Republican and was overjoyed to hear that I would be supporting the GOP that year. My parents, as I was to learn later, had always been Democrats, although they were not ideologues by any means. My dad had voted for Truman, and both he and my mother were impressed with Adlai Stevenson, whom my mother always pointed out was “an intellectual”. She said this with the same tone she always used when speaking of Picasso or any other painter she was fond of. I was not sure exactly what an intellectual was, but I found out quickly that the current President, Dwight Eisenhower was certainly not one, and neither was Mr. Nixon.
At any rate, as we watched the Republicans chant “Nixon for President” on our old RCA Van Meter looked over at me and winked. “Face it Ace, Nixon is going to win, listen to what they are saying, Nixon is President, he has already won.” For a moment I had hope, could I have missed the election ? then it hit me, Van Meter was telling a joke. That evening I drew up some Nixon for President signs and taped them to all the doors in our hallway. My folks would be tough to crack on this issue, but I was determined to try.
As summer came to a close, my father picked the family up one day and drove us out to the Shamrock Hilton. Eisenhower was in town and my dad wanted my brother and I to see him. As he drove by I waved and was somewhat disappointed that he did not seem to see me. I perked up when I looked up into the sky and saw an airplane dragging a sign from its tail with Nixon Lodge Tower on it. Now we were getting somewhere. I bet Kennedy did not have planes in his campaign.
The weeks rolled on and when class started, it appeared that most of the kids were for Nixon. Some, like my buddy Jeff Franks had a Nixon bumper sticker on the back of his bike. I noticed that some of my friends who went to Holy Ghost School had Kennedy signs in their yard and I was vaguely aware that JFK was a Catholic. I did not know much about Catholics, the only time I had ever run into them was when I had had stomach tests done at St. Joseph’s Hospital downtown. I was about five and was terrorized by the way the nurses were dressed up down there. As hard as it is to believe, I had never seen a nun before, and here were dozens of them, bustling around the room in full habits, forcing barium on me. Still, they certainly were kind people and I had a soft spot in my heart for Catholicism ever after.
I watched every debate between Nixon and Kennedy with my family. By the way, my brother who turned four during that campaign, for reasons he was never able to explain to me, was for Kennedy. At eh end of each debate, none of which I understood, I asked my father to admit that Nixon had won the debate and that he would thus vote for him. My dad kept his own counsel, but I could tell that I was getting through to him.
On election day my dad took me down to the polls and drew the sacred curtain behind us. There in front of us was the Presidential line, Kennedy and Johnson, followed by Nixon and Lodge. He hesitated for just one second and then pulled the lever for Nixon. Then he said, “How would you like to vote for U.S. Senator ? “ he asked. I was thrilled, “for Tower ? “ I questioned. “Well, no” he said,” I don’t think much of Tower, I think you should voted for Lyndon Johnson, he’s running for Vice President and Senator. “ “How can he do that ?” I asked. “Politics” my father muttered, and I quickly pulled the lever for Lyndon Johnson, the first vote I ever cast.
At 6:30 that evening I began the tradition I have followed every four years since. I sat down to watch the returns. Walter Cronkite disappointed me by saying that the Democrats were ahead. My parents assured me that it was still early and that I should not worry, but as the evening dragged on, there was no change. Now when I say the evening dragged on, my parents allowed me to stay up until 8:30 that night instead of my usual 8:00, so what seemed like a late night to me was really just the beginning of an all night count for everyone else in the country who was over seven years of age. As I went to bed, I extracted the promise from my parents to awaken me if Nixon won. I slept all night.
Your first political loss is always the toughest. I went to school that day choking back the tears. At school, however, some of my class mates seemed delusional, insisting that Nixon could still win because the returns from Alaska were no all in. But I recognized this for what it was, the triumph of hope over reality. My friend Frank, a month after the World Series ended that year was still maintaining that the Yankees had won, despite the fact that everyone in the country knew they had lost. Dreams die hard at that age. But I was hooked on politics forever, the idea of watching TV into the night and watching numbers flash up on the boards, and flash is not the best description of 1960 television graphics, was mesmerizing. How could Vermont have come in so quickly for Kennedy ? Why were they still voting in California ? It was intoxicating.
A few weeks after the election, my Dad was watching a football game on television and he asked me to come in. “Look” he said with a smile on his face, “there’s Kennedy at the game”. I was a little surprised, but not much to see my dad so happy. “You like him don’t you ?” I asked. “Sure” he said. “Then why did you vote against him ?” He looked me in the eye and told me something that I would remember again and again during the Viet Nam war. “ I voted against him because at the last minute I told myself that if anything ever happened to him we would never get rid of that son of a bitch Lyndon Johnson, and I could not stand that thought.” Well, he was right about that.