To say that the 2020 US presidential election was a roller-coaster ride would be an understatement. At the time of this writing, Donald Trump has still not conceded the election and continues to push an unfounded perception that the election was ‘stolen from him’. All of this comes after a bitterly personal battle during the election campaign where neither of the candidates pulled any punches while launching verbal tirades against each other. Observers are already calling it the most unusual and fiercely contested election that America has ever seen. But as far as personal rivalries and vote-related controversies are concerned, the election of 1960 far outweighs this year’s election. Two friends-turned-foes, who were opposites of each other in terms of both background and personality, went head-to-head in their quest to become the Leader of the Free World. This article will give a brief account of everything that transpired during the election of 1960. 

THE CANDIDATES

Let us first focus on the life and personality of both candidates because no matter how much money you spend during your election campaign, at the end of the day, it is your inherent capabilities as a person that has to appeal to the voters. If people don’t see you as an inspiring and ideal figure, you don’t stand a chance. The Democrat candidate, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born to a Boston Irish family in 1917. A cursory glance at his father’s career will give you an idea about the kind of resources that young Jack (JFK’s nickname) had. His father, Joseph P Kennedy, was one of the most ambitious people in the country. By 35, he was a multi-millionaire and had stakes in all kinds of businesses, including the illegal smuggling of whiskey during the prohibition era. He was also a prolific politician and rose to become the US Ambassador to Great Britain during the inter-war years. Naturally, neither JFK nor any of his 8 siblings were going to have a hard time when it came to finances. Battling frail health and seemingly relentless bouts with all sorts of physical problems, he went on to study at London School of Economics and Harvard University before being enlisted in the United States Navy during World War 2. Upon returning, he was elected to Congress in 1946 and then served on the US senate from 1953 to 1960. American people saw him as a charismatic, handsome, humorous, and well-natured man. The youth was also attracted by Kennedy’s wild lifestyle and playboy figure. His countless extramarital affairs with Hollywood actresses were quite the scandal. Suffice it to say, the charming John F Kennedy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and he lived more like a rockstar than a politician. 

The Republican candidate, Richard M Nixon was the polar opposite of Jack Kennedy. Born in 1913, he had a rough childhood due to his family’s pitiful financial condition. Losing two of his brothers to tuberculosis affected him deeply and as a result, he grew into a quite lonely and shy little man. All his energies were channelled into his studies and he managed to get a scholarship to Harvard University. Unfortunately, he lacked the funds for a hostel room and had to let this golden opportunity go. After graduating from Whittier College, he served in World War 2 and, just like Kennedy, was elected to the US Congress in 1946. During his time in Congress, he acquired a reputation of being a rabid anti-communist which made him quite popular among much of the US electorate who saw the Soviet Union as a new imperial power that had to be dealt with. His tough views on communism gave a boost to his political career as he became a senator in 1950 before serving as the Vice President in Eisenhower’s administration from 1952 to 1960. Nixon had an incredible work ethic and he was a prolific debater. However, he wasn’t nearly as charming as JFK and many people looked down upon his middle-class background. Nixon had always faced snubs from the upper class, ‘high society’ elites which had made him more and more bitter and vengeful as the years went by. Coming into the election of 1960, he had a lot to prove, both to himself and to his rivals.

THE ELECTION AND THE CONTROVERSIES

Both Kennedy and Richard Nixon were great friends when they first came to Congress. They also served on the same congressional committee during their early months and had the chance of debating against each other on several occasions. Even though they belonged to different parties, Kennedy was in awe of Nixon and once said, “Listen to Nixon, he is going places.” Nixon, who was quite shy and didn’t like making too many friends, developed a close bond with Kennedy. Nixon’s secret service guard claimed that in 1954, when Kennedy underwent an operation which almost left him dead, Nixon exclaimed tearfully, “Oh God, don’t let him die!”. All of that changed in 1956. Kennedy desperately wanted the Democrat Vice-Presidential ticket that year and because of it, he had to tear into the Eisenhower-Nixon administration. He made some very insulting marks directed at Nixon and even though he eventually didn’t get the ticket, their friendship turned sour. By the time 1960 rolled around, everyone knew that the Republican Party would back VP Richard Nixon as their next presidential candidate. On the other hand, the Democrats were still split between Hubert Humphrey and JFK. Nixon dismissed Kennedy as a ‘lightweight’ and was sure that he wouldn’t get the nomination. But against all odds and amongst accusations of voter fraud, Kennedy crushed Humphrey in the Democratic primaries and got the nomination. Nearly everyone knew that Joseph Kennedy Sr. had bribed a lot of Democrat delegates but the American public didn’t seem to care. The charm of the 42-year old JFK was hard to resist which was to make him the perfect poster-boy of the rocking 60s. The stage was set. Two ambitious politicians were about to go head-to-head in one of the most controversial elections of all time.

Nixon took a lead in all the pre-poll projections and was quite confident about winning the White House by a considerable margin. But his election campaign turned out to be disastrous on a lot of counts. He decided to campaign in all the 50 states which didn’t make much sense because he was wasting precious time in states he had no chances of winning. On the other hand, JFK was much more selective about his campaign venues and strengthened his voter base in historically blue states. In addition to this, Nixon underestimated the charm and media pull off the handsome JFK. This became highly evident in the first-ever televised debate between presidential candidates. Those who heard the debate on the radio felt that Nixon had won but those who watched the debate on television were too overwhelmed by JFK’s good looks, confidence, and charisma to give the debate to Nixon. Nixon’s campaign was also hurt by the demeaning comments of former presidents Harry S Truman and even Eisenhower, in whose administration he had served as the Vice President. All of these factors meant that by the time election night came around, Nixon’s pre-poll lead had been extinguished and it was too close to call. In the end, Kennedy won the popular vote by around 100,000 votes and received 303 Electoral College seats to Nixon’s 219. However, a huge controversy erupted when it was reported that there had been phony voter registrations in the state of Texas and that about 10,000 votes had been manufactured for Kennedy. On top of that, Nixon had won 93 out of 102 counties in the state of Illinois but lost by an unusually big margin in Cook County (Controlled by Kennedy’s friend Richard Daley). This meant that he lost the state of Illinois. Despite the scale of controversy, Nixon decided not to contest the election because he felt it would create a civil war-like situation in the country. Hence, John F Kennedy took oath as the new president of America in January 1961.

CONCLUSION

While the election itself was not devoid of drama and excitement, its full impact only becomes apparent once you factor in all the things that happened in its aftermath. John F Kennedy instantly became a popular president owing to his meticulous handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and his progressive speeches. But it all came to a crashing end on 22nd November 1963 when a rifle bullet ripped through his head in Dallas and sent the nation into a frenzy. Kennedy’s assassination changed everything. His VP and successor, Lyndon B Johnson decided to escalate the Vietnam War which made him unpopular among the electorate. As a result, the Democratic Party was severely weakened going into the 1968 election. Richard Nixon, who had been inactive in politics for more than 6 years by then, smelled blood and came out of his self-proclaimed retirement to win the presidency emphatically. However, his presidency also met a tragic end when, two years into his second term, he had to resign due to the Watergate Scandal. The jury is still out on who was the more effective president. But one thing is certain. Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy together defined an entire generation of American politics and the rivalry between them will go down as one of the greatest in the history of politics.

REFERENCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1960_United_States_presidential_election

https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-1960

https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/post-war-united-states-1945-1968/presidential-election-1960/

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