The Election of 1960


John Kennedy (303 Electoral Votes)
Richard Nixon (219 Electoral Votes)
Harry Byrd (15 Electoral Votes)

We view the election of 1960 so much through the double prisms of John Kennedy’s assassination and Richard Nixon’s later presidency that it’s hard, even for those of us who actually remember it, to see the campaign as it really was.  The issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism, for example, had a resonance among much of the electorate that is now hard to imagine.  Even mainstream Protestant leaders like Norman Vincent Peale expressed doubts about electing a Catholic.  (Ironically, of course, Kennedy’s Catholicism was actually more inherited and casual than personal and committed.)  Kennedy’s youth and inexperience were a concern for many.  As the incumbent Vice President, Nixon was the candidate with gravitas, although he was only four years older than Kennedy and they had entered politics the same year (1946).  It was an exciting campaign, highlighted by the famous debates.  These debates were not just the first televised presidential debates, but also the first direct presidential debates in any medium.  (Lincoln and Douglas, whose debates were often mentioned as a precedent, had actually debated as senatorial candidates in 1858 rather than when they were rival presidential candidates in 1860.)  There were, however, actually rather few issues in the campaign.  Nixon, in fact, played down his differences with Kennedy in the debates.  Kennedy’s allegations about a Soviet military lead, the famous “missile gap,” turned out to be false after the election.  The election was so close that one can’t help wondering how Nixon would have handled the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the civil rights movement.  Would Nixon’s obvious political skills have dominated his paranoia and vindictiveness, rather than the other way around, if he had won the presidency in 1960 rather than eight years (and two bitter defeats) later?

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