Kennedy and Nixon before 1960
Kennedy and Nixon before 1960
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter dwells at length on the political backgrounds of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon and the tumultuous developments culminating in the 1960 presidential election. The historical literature on John F. Kennedy's life is now sufficiently extensive and reliable to provide a more unobstructed view of him, his motivations, and his strengths and weaknesses. The repercussions of political turmoil on the personal lives of these two leaders have been narrated at length. Along with a biographical sketch of both Kennedy and Nixon, the relationship between both of them has been extensively analyzed.
“It was involuntary. They sank my boat.”
—John F. Kennedy on how he became a war hero
“I never drive by a vegetable stand without feeling sorry for the guy who picks out the rotten apples.”
—Richard M. Nixon
The two men who contested the election of 1960 came from opposite ends of the country and from different socioeconomic classes, but they were close in age and shared some common values. Both men possessed personalities that stirred the interest of political observers, an interest that continues unabated today. Neither was or is easy to fathom, although for different reasons.
The easterner, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, poses monumental problems of understanding. Because of his early death, he left little behind in the form of reflections on his life and career. During his life, he was guarded in what he told people. Journalist and friend Charles Bartlett once said, “No one knew John Kennedy, not all of him” because Kennedy never revealed all of himself to anyone outside his family.1 There were good reasons for this attitude. His family had more than its share of skeletons to conceal. JFK himself had secrets—most notably his health and his sexual behavior—that he did not wish subjected to scrutiny. The wealth, the power, the secretiveness, and the associated rumors have made it extraordinarily difficult to separate reality from hearsay. The riddle of JFK involves far more than matters of family skeletons, health issues, and womanizing, however. The circumstances of his death and the reaction to it, and the conscious effort to construct a legend surrounding his life and presidency, complicate efforts to penetrate the mythology surrounding John F. Kennedy and understand the historical reality. Before November 22, 1963, President John Kennedy was a generally popular president with a high approval rating but not without his detractors. His assassination transformed him and his position in American history. He was enshrined in the American pantheon of national heroes and became (p.26) in death a venerated figure. His youth (he was forty-six at his death), his seemingly boundless energy, his love of life, and his beautiful widow and young children added to the grief of the American people and their sense that the assassination was a cruel, irrational, and unjust act. An emotional wave engulfed the country in late 1963 and early 1964 and forever altered the perception of John F. Kennedy. Defining the historical Kennedy as opposed to the one that became enshrined in the American consciousness after November 1963 has been a challenge to historians.2 The concerted campaign to construct a mythology about the president that began in the immediate aftermath of his death further compounds the mists of uncertainty that swirl around him. The point of this effort was to ensure that he was remembered for his nobility rather than the unpleasant realities of his White House years. Before the end of November 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy contacted Theodore H. White, a journalist closely associated with the late president, denounced the “bitter old men” who wrote history, and pleaded with White to tell the American people that the Kennedy presidency was a great, noble moment in American history. Between them, Jacqueline Kennedy and Theodore White constructed the Camelot myth of the Kennedy White House.3 Although some Kennedy confidants considered Camelot romantic nonsense, a number of Kennedy court histories filled the market, not hurt by the fact that the public was more than happy to pay for and avidly devour the product. Theodore H. White's account of the 1960 presidential election, The Making of the President 1960 (1961), was part of this corpus even before the assassination. Others quickly followed, most notably Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965) and Theodore C. Sorensen's Kennedy (1965). Since then the flow of books on John F. Kennedy has never ceased. The central problem with the Kennedy court histories as represented by the works of White, Schlesinger, and Sorensen is the romantic, sanitized, and unrealistic portrayal of John F. Kennedy. With the tragic death of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, the demand for such histories doubled as a second martyr emerged. Although the emotional response was entirely natural and understandable, the histories to which it gave rise were suspect because of their lack of realism. They did the former president no favors by portraying a man without defect. Sorensen, attempting to demonstrate that he did not consider JFK perfect, provided a list of his imperfections. They included shortcomings such as rising late and going to bed late and engaging in World Series betting pools. The court histories are useful for their depictions of the president's sophistication, wit, wisdom, eloquence, and (p.27) grace as well as what they say about Kennedy's ability to inspire devotion and loyalty; but they are not convincing examinations of the complicated individual that JFK was.4
Even with an increasingly rich historical literature about John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the incomplete nature of his life and his presidency will continue to pose problems for those assessing him and his record. On matters of critical policy issues like civil rights and Vietnam, admirers of JFK argue that he would have been just as successful as his successor in the former area while avoiding the disastrous mistakes in the latter. To those less in thrall to Camelot, Kennedy was more style than substance, and the idea that he would have solved the racial crisis while avoiding the Vietnam disaster is fanciful. The ambiguous and incomplete records of Kennedy's life and presidency allow one to see whatever one wants.5
In any case, the historical literature on John F. Kennedy's life is now sufficiently extensive and reliable that we have a more unobstructed view of him, his motivations, and his strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, at the center of an understanding of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is his large Irish American family and especially his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.6
This was a family of enormous power and influence. Its money and power were products of the efforts of Joseph P. Kennedy. Like many founders of great wealth, he acquired his in dubious ways. Talented and ambitious from the days of his youth, he obtained a Harvard education, involved himself in a variety of business ventures, and managed to marry the daughter of the mayor of Boston. From there he proceeded into a number of business activities in banking, shipbuilding, Hollywood, and the stock market. On Wall Street in the 1920s he was a successful operator. He made a fortune and was astute enough to avoid being crushed by the crash of 1929. Joe Kennedy also made substantial amounts of money in liquor both during and after Prohibition. His activities in illegal and legal liquor gave him useful but embarrassing ties to organized crime. Meanwhile, he also established himself as a world-class philanderer without making any effort to conceal his multiple infidelities from his large family.7
Along with his great wealth, Joseph P. Kennedy had political ambitions. He made an astute decision in 1932 by supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt. This backing gave him entrée to the New Deal and an appointment to the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he did an excellent job. Later he became chairman of the Maritime Commission, and in 1938, FDR named him United States ambassador to Great Britain. He successfully cultivated FDR's oldest son, James. By the mid-1930s, Joe Kennedy was indulging in presidential daydreaming. FDR after 1936 was in his second term and was (p.28) expected to leave office after it as had every other two-term president in American history before 1940. Joe Kennedy saw no reason why he could not succeed FDR. Unfortunately for Kennedy, FDR entertained very different visions of the future. The president distrusted his erstwhile supporter, and if he needed any additional reasons, Kennedy supplied them during his time as ambassador. Joe Kennedy thought of himself as the great operator, but he more than met his match in FDR, who manipulated Kennedy, used him for his purposes, and then, when his usefulness was at an end, discarded him.
If Joe Kennedy displayed an excellent sense of judgment in the stock market and in his support for FDR in 1932, that judgment deserted him in the late 1930s. In Great Britain, the new ambassador accumulated a sensationally bad record. He became an ardent supporter of Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement, endorsed the Munich settlement of 1938, indicated his belief that fascism was the wave of the future in Europe and that it would be a big mistake for the United States to oppose it. He took a strong position that America's interest above all else was to stay out of the war that broke out in September 1939.
FDR became increasingly disenchanted with Kennedy but did not want to cut ties with him until after election day in 1940. Kennedy, unhappy with Washington, resigned as ambassador and returned to the United States in October 1940. Roosevelt temporarily soothed him, and Kennedy supported his reelection. In November 1940 and after, Joe Kennedy made a number of indiscreet, outrageous comments in newspaper interviews that destroyed what was left of his political career. As Felix Frankfurter put it: “Does anybody like Joe Sr.? Have you ever met anybody, except his family?”8
Still, he retained his great wealth and became even richer during the decade. By the time his second son launched his bid for the presidency in 1957, Fortune ranked him as one of the sixteen richest Americans and rated his worth at between $200 and $400 million.9
Whatever Joseph Kennedy's shortcomings as a human being, whatever his connections with stock market manipulations, bootlegging, and appeasement, whatever his infidelities, his children apparently loved, honored, and respected him. Always demanding, he pushed them to be competitive. Whatever the attitude of the outside world to him, the dominant attitude of his children was one of loyalty and devotion, although this sentiment was inevitably mixed with resentment of the unending demands and the need to obtain paternal approval. Even after the 1961 stroke that left Joseph Kennedy paralyzed, the attitude of John F. Kennedy to him was one of warmth and concern. Interestingly, the accounts we have of the family (p.29) suggest that there was much greater affection for father than mother (Rose Kennedy). More than one author suggests that John and others did not much care for Rose.10
In spite of the affection and loyalty for Joseph P. Kennedy, a combination of historical circumstances and family machinations took a heavy toll on the Kennedy children by the end of the 1940s. The oldest son, Joseph Jr., was killed in action in World War II. Kathleen Kennedy died in an airplane crash in 1948 after becoming alienated from her mother, who refused to attend her funeral. Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest daughter, met a terrible fate. Rebelling against the family and judged mentally ill, she was subjected to a lobotomy in 1941 that destroyed her mentally and left her partially paralyzed. The family sent her to a convent in Wisconsin. Joseph P. Kennedy may have been one of the wealthiest men in the United States, but even before the terrible events of the 1960s, his family had suffered greatly.
As the second son, John Fitzgerald did not initially play a major role in his father's plans. Following the destruction of his own political ambitions, Joe Sr. shifted his aspirations to his eldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. By most accounts, Joe Jr. was an unpleasant character. Not only did he bear his father's name, but he apparently subscribed to most of his father's views. He supported the Munich agreement, justified German anti-Semitism, and seemed admiring of Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s. However retrograde the political views of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. and however unpleasant his personality, he was courageous. Serving in the U.S. Navy, he died in 1944 when the experimental explosive-laden airplane he was flying in blew up. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal.11
Even if John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not at the center of the family ambitions before 1945, his father was the most important influence on his life. In retrospect, JFK's famous hypersexual activity almost certainly derived from him. From the time he was a teenager until the end of his life, John F. Kennedy seems to have been obsessed with sex.12 It is possible, though, to make too much of JFK's sexual behavior and the reluctance of newspapers and journalists to report on it, especially before 1961. Kennedy's conduct was common among Washington politicians. Lyndon Johnson, who was never considered a great Casanova, according to his chief aide, Bobby Baker, “carried on affairs with numerous women.” Among the Georgetown set of Washington in the 1950s, extramarital sex was common. As Nina Burleigh put it, “one code of behavior applied to the peasants and middle class, another to the sophisticates.” In other words, JFK's activities were not unusual in his social circle before 1947 or in his social and political circles after that (p.30) date. What made Kennedy different was his special combination of wealth, good looks, and prominence along with the recklessness of some of his liaisons and his willingness to talk in private about his romantic conquests. What also distinguished JFK was that after entering the White House in 1961, he did not moderate his wild sexual behavior. If anything, it became more flagrant.13
As for the failure of newspapers and journalists to report on this story in the 1950s or 1960s, one must remember that journalistic standards were different. Private lives of public officials, except in rare instances, were offlimits. In television news, David Brinkley recalled that he was not even allowed to use words such as “rape” or “abortion” and had to resort to code words. Social and political pressures worked against, not in favor of, reporting on John Kennedy's sexual behavior. This was especially true when one took into consideration the wealth and power of the Kennedy family.14
Beyond his sexual drive and the exploitative attitude toward women that came with it, Joseph P. Kennedy passed on to Jack his competitiveness, his admiration for and cultivation of toughness, and an acceptance of inequality, among other characteristics. John F. Kennedy seemed to sympathize with the downtrodden and was capable of individual acts of personal kindness. Like his father, though, he did not believe that blacks were equal to whites or that women were equal to men. He did not revel in such inequalities, but neither did he think much could be done about them. JFK had seen life: it was unfair, and nothing could change that.15
The second son was not an uncritical admirer. He loved, respected, and admired his father, but he had his own mind and did not slavishly follow his father's lead. If John Kennedy held relatively conservative viewpoints like his father in the 1930s, the 1940s, and the early 1950s, his political trajectory moved toward more liberal positions in the later 1950s. Jack saw no contradiction between love of father and disagreement with many of his viewpoints. To his credit, the patriarch did not allow the disagreements to ruin the relationship. Perhaps Joe did not understand his second son, but he was proud of JFK's growing success in the 1940s and 1950s and never stopped encouraging him.
If the example and influence of Joseph P. Kennedy was one of the two greatest shaping forces in the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the other was his health. In his youth, JFK was perpetually ill—with back problems, scarlet fever, diphtheria, asthma, colitis, various allergies, and more. The family joke was that if a mosquito bit JFK, the mosquito was bound to die. Although Kennedy outgrew some of these afflictions, the back problems remained constant and caused him considerable difficulty and pain to the (p.31) end of his life. He also acquired new maladies including Addison's disease, diagnosed in 1947. Fortunately for Kennedy, doctors had discovered the use of cortisone as a treatment for Addison's, but the regular injections of cortisone produced other health problems.16
The consequences were profound. John F. Kennedy lived with serious pain for most of his life. He was vulnerable to medical complications. His back pain was so severe that in October 1954 and again in February 1955 he underwent operations rather than continue to live with the discomfort, even though doctors and his father advised against the procedure. He nearly died, and the back problems did not end, although after 1955 his health generally improved. Even so, between May 1955 and October 1957, he secretly underwent hospitalization nine times for a total of forty-four days. As president, he had to be careful about lifting his young children because of his back.17
If chronic pain and discomfort were one obvious result of Kennedy's poor health, a second important consequence was the courage he developed and manifested in coping with these disabilities. Facing great physical challenges, Jack Kennedy did not surrender but developed resources of strength, courage, stoicism, and tenacity that served him well. His ability to respond in this fashion was a tribute not only to JFK but to the success of his father in instilling the qualities necessary to overcome the overwhelming physical problems the son confronted.
Kennedy put aside his problems, acted as much as possible like a healthy individual, and never asked for sympathy. One story, told by friend Paul Fay, is revealing. Once watching JFK get ready to inject himself in his thigh, Fay remarked to Kennedy, “[T]he way you take that jab, it looks like it doesn't even hurt.” Kennedy sprang at Fay, jabbed him in the thigh with the needle, provoking a scream from Fay. Kennedy commented to him, “It feels the same way to me.”18
With the pain and courage came concealment, deception, and a search for relief. As Joe Kennedy's plans and JFK's ambitions advanced, public knowledge about his physical condition became a major threat. Any revelation, admission, or leak of the true state of Kennedy's health, especially of the Addison's, might have doomed his presidential ambitions. There was enough knowledge in the public sphere for many politicians and journalists to have an idea of the situation. And so there were denials, subterfuges, equivocations, and whatever else was needed to avoid a full explication of John F. Kennedy's physical condition. The evasions carried through the 1950s and the presidential campaign of 1960, into the early 1960s, and even beyond Kennedy's death.
(p.32) Kennedy and his political aides knew that it was impossible to explain his condition in a way that would satisfy the public. Therefore, they resolved to ignore the issue as much as possible and say nothing “because it would be misunderstood.” When pressed on the issue, the standard response was to deny any connection with the disease or to obfuscate. In July 1959, Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger Jr. he did not have Addison's “and have never had it.” He even told Schlesinger that he no longer took cortisone. On other occasions, he or his aides denied that he had “classic” Addison's, or admitted that he had it and was now over it, or asserted that it was under control and no hindrance to a normal life. Equally noteworthy are Kennedy's deceptions about his health and his raw courage in overcoming his physical disabilities.19
In spite of his health, John F. Kennedy was determined to join the military as war loomed in 1941. The U.S. Army rejected him because of his physical problems, but in September 1941 he managed to secure a naval commission through the influence of his father. Although Joseph P. Kennedy strongly opposed the war, he saw military service as a necessity for the political future of his two eldest sons. The trick, as far as he was concerned, was for them to perform military service without getting killed. Joe just wanted Jack sent somewhere that “wasn't too deadly.” JFK's eagerness to serve was much to his credit and much in contrast to later years in which individuals commonly used political influence to avoid military service. John F. Kennedy, who was physically unfit for military service, joined the U.S. Navy. To what extent he and his older brother may have been using military service to attempt to redeem the family name after his father's disgrace is not clear. This may well have been a motivating factor, but so undoubtedly were JFK's daring, his love of adventure, and his desire to escape the family confines.20
His World War II service, while not lengthy, did not lack excitement. After shore duty in the Office of Naval Intelligence, John F. Kennedy found himself in the Southwest Pacific Theater as captain of a patrol torpedo (PT) boat, one of the most dangerous vessels in the U.S. Navy. On the night of August 1, 1943, a Japanese destroyer rammed and sank Kennedy's boat, the PT-109, in the waters off the Solomon Islands. After the sinking and the loss of two sailors, JFK led the survival effort, and eventually he and the remaining crewmen were rescued. He returned to the United States as a war hero and was discharged in March 1945.21
Characteristically, John F. Kennedy, while enormously proud of his naval service, did not boast about it. In 1946, he told one newspaperman that he did not wish to be portrayed as a war hero. Kennedy, like most World War (p.33) II veterans, thought being a “hero” was just being in the right place at the right time with someone to witness your action and write the appropriate recommendation. JFK did not add that it helped to have a father like his with the wealth and promotional abilities to make sure the deed did not go unrecognized. When campaigning in Wisconsin in 1959 and asked about how he became a hero, he responded: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.”22
John F. Kennedy spent much of 1945 in California as a journalist but returned later in the year to make his first political bid for the House of Representatives. With the death of Joe Jr., the second son now became the first and with that change in status came all the pressures and expectations that went with it. But John F. Kennedy's character had been forged as a younger son, not the eldest. He had grown up something of a maverick questioning authority and refusing to accept conventional orthodoxies. His experiences with doctors and the military left him a skeptic of those in power. Still, he was a Kennedy and his father's son. Joseph P. Kennedy was deadly serious about making him president of the United States. In 1946, the great enterprise began with JFK's bid for a seat in the House of Representatives. With the massive support of his father, he easily won the Democratic nomination and then the general election.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy arrived in Washington in 1947, having overcome great obstacles in both war and peace. As suggested by Nigel Hamilton, JFK had enjoyed an extraordinary early life but was now embarking on an even more extraordinary political career.23 He brought to Washington a personality and manner well suited to the presidential politics that would develop in the second half of the twentieth century. He possessed a vast amount of charm that he combined with self-assurance and a sense of humor to good effect. That the charm, self-assurance, and humor came with great wealth and good looks made them more potent. These qualities and the wealth came with an absence of self-promotion. Instead, as Florida congressman (later senator) and friend George Smathers observed: “[H]e never kidded himself or had any delusions about himself. He saw himself candidly and accurately and frankly.”24
As one of his interpreters has noted, Kennedy “projected an indescribable grace” that combined “Harvard intellectualism and an Irish cultural heritage” and made him “perhaps the first Irish Brahmin in American politics.” He loved luxury, enjoyed caviar, and ate it by the spoonful. He was used to wealth and power. The Great Depression had had almost no effect upon him. He had never had to work in his life and almost never carried money with him, relying on others to pay for any daily expenses that arose.25
(p.34) With the love of luxury came an intellectualism that JFK could apparently summon on command. Kennedy, who had great admiration for the English style of politics, laced his speeches and observations with literary and historical allusions. Late in the 1950s, the New York Times reported that “Senator Kennedy was at his best before university audiences, raining upon them historical allusions, quoting from Bismarck, Shakespeare, and Queen Victoria. He has a sharp historical sense but it is that of a cum laude Harvard graduate who writes books.”26 Numerous observers remarked on Kennedy's quick, inquiring mind that seemed ever in search of new theories to explore. He created in many the impression of an intellectual in politics.
With his grace and elegance along with his wealth, John F. Kennedy was a much sought after companion. He did not have to seek out friends and associates; they flocked to him, and he had his choice of friendships and social events. There emerged something of a competition for his attention. He set the tone for his circle, and those who did not conform to his tastes were eliminated. Kennedy did not like pretense and self-importance. He had no patience with pieties, and flattery was not effective with him. He distrusted emotional individuals.27
Kennedy was detached, restless, and easily bored. As Richard Reeves observed, he was “very impatient, addicted to excitement, living his life as if it were a race against boredom.” Some of his friends lived in terror of the possibility that he might become tired of them. They had the sense that they were disposable, like his girlfriends. Associates, female friends, the press, and many others found themselves under his spell. His relaxed and sardonic humor, his sense of irony, his inquiring mind, his openness to new ideas offered a bright new political light and captivated a growing audience in Washington beginning in the late 1940s and throughout the succeeding decade.28
Kennedy not only charmed people, he manipulated them. Polly Kraft, the wife of one of his speechwriters, observed that he [JFK] was “an artist who paints with other people's lives.” Richard Reeves concluded that Kennedy's life “was sequential seduction and there were few complaints from the seduced.” When Kennedy became displeased with someone, even a close friend, he had no difficulty in retaliating against that individual. After JFK became president, Ben Bradlee, one of his closest journalist friends, wrote a story to which Kennedy objected. Bradlee, for his efforts, found himself ostracized for more than a month.29
Nor was Kennedy's record in Washington so scintillating that everyone became an admirer. Felix Frankfurter said he was “totally disbelieving” in Kennedy's “alleged great knowledge of history.” Sam Rayburn, Speaker of (p.35) the House of Representatives, said that in the House, JFK was “one of the laziest men I ever talked to” and “just…another seat-warmer.” Later, during the presidential campaign of 1960, Rayburn changed his mind. Then he was “amazed at the depth of Kennedy's knowledge.”30
Even Kennedy admirers concede that JFK's performance in the House of Representatives, from 1947 to 1953, was uninspired and uninspiring. There were obvious reasons. His health continued to be poor. He found congressional duties unimportant and unexciting. According to a close friend, the House “began to look like a Three-I League job to a major league ball player.” Kennedy was frequently absent, often appeared in casual clothes (including sneakers), and was bored with constituent services. Still, the new representative could and did show occasional flashes of brilliance. John F. Kennedy may not have made a record as a serious and important member of the House, but he did display an intelligence and political talent far above that of the typical first-term congressman.31
The new Massachusetts representative had no intention of remaining in the House any longer than necessary and soon began plotting his rise to the U.S. Senate. This meant challenging Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1952. Lodge was in a very strong position, and 1952 shaped up as a Republican year. Joseph P. Kennedy thought a race against Lodge was a big mistake with the potential to ruin his son's political career. JFK was determined; he had had his fill of the House. He believed if he was going to get ahead he had to take the risk. Kennedy was something of a fatalist: either he was destined for higher office or not, and he might as well find out. His poor health seemed to have led him to think that his life expectancy was short. In the late 1940s, he told Joseph Alsop that he had “some kind of slow-motion-leukemia.” He had seen too many premature deaths in his family and in the war to believe there was any point in putting off his bid to rise. Kennedy's willingness to take political risks, to plunge into unknown waters, and to not secondguess himself was one of his political strengths. Without this quality, he might have fallen short in the presidential sweepstakes. With Kennedy, there were no regrets and no looking back.32
Kennedy confronted enormous obstacles in 1952 as he faced an incumbent senator from an old and honored Massachusetts family, a powerful Republican presidential candidate at the top of the GOP ticket, and an election year that generally favored Republicans. However, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. proved to be a less formidable campaigner than expected, and Joseph P. Kennedy mobilized his massive resources for the campaign. Robert F. Kennedy for the first time made his mark as campaign manager. In a crucial showdown, JFK bested Lodge in a debate. In it, JFK was “cool and offhand,” (p.36) his performance a matter of “effortless grace,” while Lodge “sweated and his hands shook.” John F. Kennedy narrowly won the election in spite of Eisenhower's massive victory in the state. Kennedy became only the third Democrat ever elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.33
Although JFK was happy to be out of the House and into the more exclusive Senate, his early years in the upper chamber were undistinguished. He married Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953, but his health continued to be a serious problem, especially in 1954–55. After that, although the back pain remained and he was never completely well, there was some improvement in his condition.
With better health, JFK developed a new zest for politics and for his father's grand project to make him president. Four years into his first term in the Senate, John F. Kennedy experienced a political epiphany. In 1956, the Democratic presidential nomination went for a second time to Adlai E. Stevenson, who made the unexpected decision to throw open the nomination of the vice-presidential candidate to the national convention. JFK had been angling for the vice-presidential nomination, but there could be no planning for this eventuality. John and Robert Kennedy immediately took up the challenge. They launched an impromptu campaign to secure the nomination for vice president against the advice of their father, who thought this an exceedingly stupid idea. The battle between Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and Kennedy was hard fought. At one point, Kennedy was within forty votes of the nomination. In the end, Kefauver narrowly won. The Massachusetts senator made an excellent showing, received much favorable publicity, and elicited support from Democratic delegations across America, perhaps most surprisingly from the South.34
Subsequently, Robert F. Kennedy traveled with the Stevenson presidential campaign to observe its operations. Stevenson lost, but the Kennedy brothers learned much from the 1956 campaign. First was the realization that even with no preparation and no organization, JFK had almost won the vice-presidential nomination. (Since Kefauver had been Stevenson's main opponent, he already had an organization in place for the vice-presidential fight.) Second, Bobby Kennedy discovered that Stevenson was incompetent and neither to be feared nor respected. According to Bobby, the former Illinois governor lacked decisiveness and refused to delegate authority, while his campaign was disorganized. Bobby, who did not conceal his contempt, was “sullen and withdrawn” and “hard bitten and sour” during the campaign. He made no effort to pretend that he admired the candidate. At one point, he called JFK to tell him that he thought “Adlai's a faggot.” After (p.37) quitting the campaign, he called Larry O'Brien and told him: “I feel as if I'm alive again.…That asshole was absolutely killing me.”35
The third great revelation centered on the location of real power in the Democratic convention delegations. Ken O'Donnell and Robert Kennedy went to see Senator John McLellan of Arkansas to ask for his state's votes for JFK for vice president. McLellan responded that they were talking to the wrong person—the real power rested with Governor Orval Faubus. It occurred to O'Donnell and Robert and John Kennedy that members of the House or Senate did not control state delegations, and they set out to determine on a state-by-state basis who did.36
In short, John and Robert Kennedy came away from Chicago in 1956 unimpressed with Democratic leaders and convinced that they could capture the presidential nomination in 1960 if they organized and worked hard. Before 1956, JFK thought he would have to work toward the vice presidency first and then move on to the presidential nomination. Now, he was convinced the presidential nomination was attainable without going through the vice presidency.
In 1957, Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy began to focus his considerable talents on this effort. He possessed many assets but also a few serious liabilities. His youth was against him as the great political bosses of the Democratic Party tended to see him as a young, rich upstart without the qualifications to be president. He also had a serious problem with liberals. The Kennedy family had befriended, supported, and never renounced Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, an association that marked the Massachusetts senator as suspect. John Kennedy supported basic liberal economic and social programs, but he disdained the liberal label and disliked sentimental, emotional appeals. Whatever his progressive inclinations, John F. Kennedy was not a liberal in 1957. As journalist friend Rowland Evans tried to explain: “Kennedy didn't like the word liberal. He thought the liberals often posed and postured.…[H]e had scorn for the professional liberals.” For their part, self-proclaimed liberals were naturally suspicious of the Massachusetts senator. One such individual recalled what he saw as Kennedy's “coldness.” “He smiled, he was charming, but there was no outgoing affection or warmth, or even indignation.”37
Liberals were not JFK's only problem. He was suspect among African Americans and white southerners. Beginning in 1957, he attempted to steer a middle course trying to figure out how to appeal to both groups without irrevocably alienating either of them. With memories of southern support in Chicago, he first made overtures toward the South. His votes on the civil (p.38) rights bill of 1957 marked him as a moderate. He cultivated Alabama governor John Patterson. In 1957–58, southerners saw John F. Kennedy as someone who understood their problems.38
The southern tilt aggravated Kennedy's problems with liberals. He and his campaign managers came to see the candidate's southern associations as more of a liability than an asset. By 1959, the Massachusetts senator was backtracking from the South and trying to demonstrate his liberal bona fides. He invested time and effort to recruit Chester Bowles as a foreign policy adviser because, he said, he and Bowles shared similar views. When Bowles endorsed Kennedy in late 1959, it was a breakthrough on the liberal front. Kennedy's true views about Bowles and party liberals like him were revealed in a later comment: “Chet tells me there are six revolutions going on in the world. One is the revolution of rising expectations. I lost track of the other five.” In truth, Kennedy was a centrist and a realist. He lacked the emotional commitment to liberal ideals, and he found men like Bowles, Stevenson, and Humphrey pedantic and boring.39
In 1957, the Kennedy presidential campaign accelerated. The candidate received some 2,500 invitations for speaking appearances and fulfilled hundreds of them. He was on the cover of Time. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Profiles in Courage as well as a coveted seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ironically, the latter was the handiwork of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who denied the seat to Estes Kefauver, considering the Tennessee senator a greater threat to his (LBJ's) presidential ambitions than the Massachusetts senator. John F. Kennedy's campaign was serious. There were no more of the halfhearted, languid efforts that characterized his first ten years in Washington. His opponents failed to take the new Kennedy seriously.
If John F. Kennedy's life up to 1947 was “extraordinary,” as Nigel Hamilton maintains, not even the most dedicated admirers of Kennedy's Republican opponent in 1960 would make a similar claim in his behalf. Yet, Richard Milhous Nixon is just as interesting an individual as Kennedy, and his political career between 1946 and 1959 involved higher stakes.
The difficulties in understanding Nixon and getting at the core of his personality are equal to those posed by Kennedy, though for different reasons. Any attempt to describe Nixon, his thinking, and his actions in the 1940s and 1950s runs hard into the perceptions of Nixon from his presidency and especially the Watergate scandal. As with Kennedy, the great challenge is to understand Nixon as he was in the 1950s.40
Nixon fascinated observers then and now because of his unusual mixture of characteristics. Those who worked with him very quickly recognized (p.39) his powerful intelligence and his remarkable memory. One individual said that Nixon possessed “the most retentive memory I've ever encountered.” Another person who knew him from the Eisenhower administration said Nixon impressed him with his ability for summarizing succinctly and effectively both sides of an argument at congressional leadership or cabinet meetings. Bryce Harlow, an especially astute observer of Congress and presidents, maintained that the “intellectual competence of this man [Nixon] is probably the highest of any person ever to serve in the Oval office—the finest intelligence, the most disciplined at any rate.” By 1960, he also possessed an unparalleled knowledge of American state and local politics.41
With this ability came a virtually impenetrable personality. Over the years, there has been no shortage of politicians, journalists, and historians who have undertaken the task of trying to understand Richard M. Nixon without a great deal of success. Theodore H. White remarked to Hugh Sidey of Time and Life, “Do you realize…that I have spent the greatest portion of my adult life writing about Richard Nixon and I still don't understand him?” Economic adviser Arthur Burns said he would never completely understand Nixon. A Soviet diplomat in 1972 said that the Soviets found Nixon “so impenetrable that we had no idea what would please him.” Close associates of Nixon such as Robert Finch and H. R. Haldeman contended that they had no personal relationship. Haldeman, for example, asserted that Nixon did not know how many children his chief aide had or their ages.42
The sources of this problem are obvious. Richard M. Nixon was an introvert, a loner who kept to himself as much as possible. He almost never relaxed and had few close friends outside his family. He was socially awkward, not very dexterous, and mechanically inept, attributes that reinforced his loner tendencies. Nixon said to H. R. Haldeman, his lead advance man in 1960 and later his chief of staff, “I'm an introvert in an extrovert's profession.” Nixon had difficulty dealing with people. He struggled with small talk as a social lubricant and took none of the pleasure that someone like Lyndon Johnson did in the conviviality and backslapping that characterized politics at every level. In 1972, when speaking to a policeman who had suffered a minor injury after having been accidentally hit by a vehicle in the presidential motorcade, Nixon asked him, “How do you like your job?” Nixon's trip to talk to the protestors at the Lincoln Memorial at the time of the American invasion of Cambodia in 1970 is well known for the president's difficulty in trying to strike up a conversation. According to Haldeman and others, Nixon could not relax with people outside his family. In social contacts, he was “stiff” and “artificial,” but with groups he was “superb,” and in situations in which the matter was strictly business, Nixon (p.40) was “usually excellent” with individuals, but he hated to see anyone who had to be persuaded or threatened. He disliked any situation that meant personal confrontation and did his best to avoid them. He found it almost impossible to fire someone himself.43
Haldeman attributed much of Nixon's attitude and behavior to his rigid self-discipline. From his youth, Nixon had worked exceptionally hard. His focus and self-discipline were extraordinary. This approach to life meant that he was always self-conscious of what he did and what he said. Newsman Edward P. Morgan observed that it was “impossible for him [Nixon] to relax. It's impossible for him to just sit down and say something without posturing.” Many interpreted this as artificiality, deviousness, manipulation, or Nixon calculating his statements and actions for effect rather than stating his true beliefs. Nixon seemed unable to be spontaneous. When his public relations people tried to get him to appear in a relaxed setting on a beach at San Clemente, he appeared in a white shirt and tie and walked along the beach in his wing tip shoes. This self-discipline was also noticeable in his diet. He paid careful attention to what he ate, opting for healthy food before that became common. He drank sparingly (although he occasionally did become inebriated). He exercised regularly. His weight changed very little over the last fifty years of his life. Haldeman thought Nixon's selfdiscipline so encompassing as to be “unnatural.”44
One of his very few close personal friends was Bebe Rebozo. Rebozo's successful relationship with Nixon was instructive. He succeeded because he was completely loyal, did not gossip, never made requests of Nixon, and tolerated endless Nixon monologues or hours of Nixon writing on his yellow legal pad in silence. Bebe was a “genial, discrete sponge” who asked nothing of Nixon. He was the one person outside his family with whom Nixon enjoyed effortless companionship.45
Most people found Nixon's persona strange and baffling. His straining efforts at congeniality seemed manufactured and synthetic. His political, journalistic, and other critics considered it a manifestation of his insincerity. In a famous comment, Ann Whitman, Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary and no Nixon admirer, remarked that the vice president “sometimes seems like a man who is acting like a nice man rather than being one.” A typical reaction of those who met Nixon and took a dislike to him was that of Ben Bradlee of Newsweek and a friend of Jack Kennedy's. Bradlee said that he met the vice president when he covered him in the 1960 election but he “never got behind that staged, programmed exterior to anything like an inner man that I could understand or laugh with.” Richard Rovere developed (p.41) an “instinctive dislike and distrust” for Nixon and considered him a “transparent demagogue and fraud.”46
Others critics viewed Nixon with a combination of pity and disdain. Theodore White, the great friend of the Kennedy presidential campaign, wrote pityingly of Nixon that “rather than being the hard, cruel, vengeful man as constantly described in the liberal press, Nixon was above all a friend seeker, almost pathetic in his eagerness to be liked.”47
Nixon grew up in a modest Quaker family. The future vice president and president possessed a spiritual dimension that remained with him his entire life, although he was less interested in theological issues. He was a sentimentalist and someone who took pride in making small, kind gestures to the less powerful. This practice began in his youth when he convinced his mother not to have a shoplifter arrested because of the effect on her two children of having their mother labeled a thief, continued at Duke Law School, and followed him as vice president. He befriended Senate janitor Robert Collins, sent him flowers when his wife had a stroke, gave him a cane for a neighbor, and wrote him a letter of thanks as Nixon prepared to leave Washington in January 1961. At about the same time, he penned another letter to Herb Kaplow of NBC television reporting to him that two hostesses on the press plane that followed Nikita Khrushchev around the country in 1959 had told him that Kaplow was “the most considerate of the whole press crowd.” In Nixon's view, this was a genuine compliment to a member of the media, most of whom the vice president disliked and distrusted. Later, when he became president, he read a story about Billy Corbett, a karate expert who attempted to set a world record by breaking 2,056 bricks with his hand. He hoped people would give one dollar a brick for children with kidney diseases. Unfortunately, Corbett broke his hand in the effort and raised less than $300. Nixon sent Corbett a check for $100. Nixon sincerely empathized with the middle and working classes and was scornful of those of the elite who treated such people callously.48
Exactly how and why Richard M. Nixon became what he was has been a matter of considerable debate. H. R. Haldeman's analysis with emphasis on Nixon's obsessive self-discipline and its consequences is probably the best explanation. But it is not the only one. Henry Kissinger, in a famous comment to Hugh Sidey at the end of the Watergate debacle, remarked: “Can you imagine what this man [Nixon] would have been had somebody loved him? I don't think anybody ever did, not his parents, not his peers. He would have been a great, great man had somebody loved him.” Bryce Harlow offered a similar interpretation. Harlow said he guessed that sometime (p.42) in his youth Nixon “got badly hurt by someone he cared for very deeply or trusted totally.…[A]nd from that experience and from then on he could not trust people.”49 According to this theory, Nixon suffered some traumatic event in his youth from which he did not recover. For his part, Nixon despised psychological explanations of his behavior.
Nixon's early life was not one of great hardship or suffering, and his parents were decent, ordinary people. The Nixon family was stable and loving. Life was not easy, but the family was middle class in the context of the early twentieth century. Frank and Hannah Nixon had four other sons in addition to Richard. From what is known, Frank and Hannah were good, loving parents, and their family was a close one. Like many families, though, in the harsh world of the early twentieth century, they were forced to confront their share of adversity and suffering. One son (Arthur) died suddenly in his childhood of uncertain causes (probably encephalitis or meningitis), and another (Harold) passed away in his early adulthood from tuberculosis after a lengthy illness. These personal tragedies undoubtedly affected Richard and his family, but such events were not uncommon in the America of the first third of the century.50
Like most other families in the 1920s and 1930s, the Nixons enjoyed only a narrow economic margin, and the Great Depression battered them in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the economic and other setbacks they endured were not enough to prevent Richard from beginning his college education at Whittier College in 1930 or moving on to law school at Duke in 1934. In short, what one saw in Richard M. Nixon was a very unusual and very talented individual who emerged from ordinary circumstances.
If Richard M. Nixon possessed great ability, he also capitalized on it by working long, hard hours at whatever he undertook. At age fifteen, he was responsible for the vegetables in the family store. He would arise at 4:00 a.m., drive to a Los Angeles vegetable market, buy the produce, bring it back, and then wash and display it. After that effort, he would go off to school. This regimen forced him to give up football and orchestra, but he had no difficulty in maintaining his status as one of the best students in the school. The significance of the work in the grocery store, which he continued even after he entered college, was multifaceted. It conditioned him to work hard, to organize himself and his time, and to develop self-discipline. It contributed to his serious nature and his view of life as a very serious business. It also gave him firsthand experience with the realities of the life that most Americans faced, which helped him to understand and empathize with their outlook. Nixon would say later that he never drove by a (p.43) vegetable stand “without feeling sorry for the guy who picks out the rotten apples.”51
With the completion of his studies at Duke Law School in 1937, Nixon tried but failed to secure jobs with a New York City law firm and the FBI. He returned to Whittier. If peacetime did not allow Nixon to escape Whittier, World War II did. With his new wife, Pat, whom he married in 1940, he obtained a job in the Office of Price Administration (OPA) in Washington in early 1942. The job gave him his first bad taste of the federal bureaucracy. Richard Nixon had already decided years earlier to become a politician, and any aspiring politician knew that wartime service, if not an absolute necessity, would be a major asset. So, in 1942, he joined the U.S. Navy, and in 1943 he shipped out for the South Pacific, where he served as a logistical officer.
Nixon's naval service was hardly as eventful as John F. Kennedy's, but it was of considerable significance for the Californian. In the navy, Nixon discovered an unknown side of himself. He fit in well in the male setting. He played poker extremely well, held his own in profanity, and operated a trading post, all the while doing an excellent job of providing for his men. Perhaps most importantly, he discovered a rapport with working-class men. He was well known and well liked. His ability to understand the working-class perspective, its wants and needs, and its resentments proved invaluable in his subsequent political career. Accounts of his navy service indicate none of the social awkwardness usually associated with him. Instead, he seems to have been a version of the character made famous by Henry Fonda in the movie Mr. Roberts, as difficult as it may be for many to reconcile Nixon with the movie character. Apparently, for one time in his life, Nixon was able to relax, be himself, and temporarily put aside the striving that was so ingrained in him. Over the years, many of his critics, often members of the social, media, and academic elites, would confound themselves in attempting to explain Nixon's popular appeal. They would have done well to have studied his navy years as well as his time at the family grocery store.52
Back in the United States in 1945, Nixon initially returned to his law practice—but with his eye on a political career. In 1946, he became the Republican nominee for the House of Representatives in the Twelfth Congressional District of California, a seat held by Democrat Jerry Voorhis. This marked the beginning of a remarkable and meteoric political rise for Nixon. His initial victory in 1946 was quickly followed by reelection in 1948, a victorious campaign for the United States Senate in 1950, and election as vice president of the United States in 1952 at age thirty-nine.53
(p.44) His rise was swifter than that of John F. Kennedy, despite Kennedy's advantages of wealth and fame. Without these, Nixon had advantages of his own. He benefited from the fact that, in three of the four years he ran (1946, 1950, 1952), the political tide favored Republicans. Only in 1948 did he have to run in a year that turned out to be unfavorable, and in that year he had only a minority-party opponent in the general election. He seized upon and made highly effective use of the anticommunism issue. He ran a huge risk with the Alger Hiss case—one that could have ruined him politically—but he made the right call and reaped great rewards. Nixon's anticommunism was usually reasonable and benefited from the numerous irresponsible practitioners whose wild excesses made Nixon appear moderate by comparison. He also did well to position himself as a centrist in the great internal clash in the Republican Party.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Republican Party was badly divided. The eastern Dewey wing of the party, which accommodated itself to the New Deal and supported the new departures in American foreign policy, battled the Taft wing, which generally remained opposed to the New Deal and the new foreign policy of the late 1940s. The choice of Nixon as vice president in 1952 rested in large part on his acceptability to both sides of the party. He had supported the Marshall Plan and NATO, thereby aligning himself with the eastern Republican establishment on the one hand, while his hard-line anticommunism and his role in the Hiss case made him look good to more conservative Republicans. Nixon's ability to maintain his credentials with both wings of the party was crucial to his political career from the late 1940s until his election in 1968. In that year, he managed to beat back the challenge of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller while simultaneously warding off the rising California governor, Ronald Reagan.
His rapid advance was not without liabilities. The politics that Nixon practiced had very sharp edges. His efforts in the Hiss case made enemies. Alger Hiss was a symbol of New Deal liberalism and Ivy League elitism. Nixon took delight in discrediting Hiss and what he stood for. New Dealers, Hiss loyalists, and the journalistic and academic elite despised Nixon's work.
The campaigns of 1952 and 1954 were clearly characterized by an unusual level of antagonism. There is a question of whether those of 1946 (against Jerry Voorhis) and 1950 (against Helen Gahagan Douglas) were as bad as they were later portrayed to be or whether it was more of a case of Democrats rendering an ex post facto judgment on them. The conventional wisdom has been to see 1946 and 1950 as exceptionally dirty campaigns in which Nixon with his ignoble character overwhelmed the naiveté and (p.45) idealism of his opponents. The heterodox view is that Nixon won because 1946 and 1950 were Republican years and because Voorhis and Douglas ran exceedingly poor campaigns, not because Nixon played unfairly. According to this theory, Nixon's campaigns were not especially rough in the context of 1946 and 1950, and many of the complaints against Nixon were manufactured after Nixon reached the national stage as the vice-presidential candidate in 1952. There is no debate about the nature of the 1952 campaign, which turned into one of the nastiest of the century. Both Democrats and Republicans delivered numerous low blows, and Richard Nixon was one of the most prominent figures in the fray. Nixon supporters argued he was under as much attack as anyone because of the liberal dislike for him growing out of the Hiss case. His detractors saw Nixon as one of the major perpetrators of the poisonous politics of the late 1940s and the first half of the 1950s.54
Richard Nixon accumulated a very large number of political enemies. These included not only militant liberals but Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, and Sam Rayburn. Nixon brought much of this dislike on himself with his incendiary rhetoric. In 1952, he accused Truman, Stevenson, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson of being “traitors to the high principles in which many of the nation's Democrats believe.” He accused Stevenson of “having a Ph.D. degree from Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment.” In the 1954 campaign, he mentioned Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and then said, “[I]sn't it wonderful finally to have a Secretary of State who isn't taken in by the Communists?” Democrats such as Truman, Rayburn, Stevenson, and Acheson interpreted Nixon's remarks to mean that he was accusing them of disloyalty. They did not forget, and Stevenson, for one, never forgave.55
As far as Truman was concerned, Nixon had called him a traitor, and he would have nothing to do with the vice president even when Nixon tried to make amends in 1958. Rayburn said Nixon had “the cruelest face he'd ever looked into” but denied hating him. Rayburn went on to add: “I don't hate anybody. But there are a few I loathe.” Adlai Stevenson regarded him with passionate contempt. One associate of the former Illinois governor said that Nixon was the only individual he ever heard Stevenson refer to as “a son of a bitch.”56
Nixon did not hold a grudge—at least against Acheson, Rayburn, and Truman. In his memoirs, one of his few expressions of regret concerned his attacks on Acheson in 1952. On Rayburn's death, he wrote an undoubtedly sincere tribute to the Speaker's sister, calling him “one of the greatest leaders our nation has ever produced” and attributing to him “never-failing (p.46) courage.” Nixon belatedly paid tribute to Truman—first in 1958 and later in the 1990s—when, among other things, he attributed “great leadership” to Truman, noting that Truman “had some of the best gut instincts I have ever seen” and that he was “the architect of our winning position in the cold war.” These comments summarized one of many Nixonian paradoxes. He could lambaste men like Truman and Acheson in unmerciful terms and still express admiration for them. In the case of Rayburn, he could absorb the wrath and disdain that he undoubtedly felt from the Texan, yet still respect and admire him. These were obvious inconsistencies, even contradictions, and there may be no way to reconcile them. In Nixon's mind, politics was a tough business, one in which one had to be able to take it as well as give it out, and there is a gulf between what he said in political campaigns and his historical assessment of individuals.57
Although a good deal of the dislike for Richard Nixon was reasonable and understandable, there was also an irrational element. There were the conspiracy theorists, then and now. There were those who believed that Alger Hiss was innocent and that Nixon helped to frame him. Stewart Alsop, in 1959, reported that a little old California lady told him: “I know it's against religion to hate anybody, but I just can't help hating Nixon. He's just like that Hitler.” The idea that Nixon was Nazi-like was common among his critics. Walter Cronkite told Tom Dewey that a great many people said that Nixon reminded them of Max Schmeling, Rudolf Hess, and Joe Mc- Carthy in his physical appearance. Other Democrats entertained fantasies of Nixon as a Nazi storm trooper. What one is supposed to make of all this is uncertain. Nixon had no connections with fascist or Nazi political fronts, had never supported appeasement, and had served in the U.S. Navy.58
Some of Nixon's unsavory reputation was the product of his role in the Eisenhower administration. Ike relied on the vice president to conduct the necessary partisan attacks. So, Nixon was the Republican point man in 1952 and 1954, and the president was able to stay above the battle as he preferred.59
Nixon soldiered on, loyal to the administration and accumulating more than his share of political scars and resentments. Within the administration during the first term, he was “a political Mr. Fix It.” However, he handled himself very well at the time of the president's heart attack in 1955 and won new respect as a consequence of his circumspect behavior. Nixon's problem by the end of the first Eisenhower term was twofold. First, in the service of the president and the party he had made himself widely disliked among Democrats and some independents. Second, his signature issue of domestic anticommunism was in decline. As he entered 1956, Nixon faced the (p.47) prospect of becoming an obsolete political product—too controversial and too partisan to continue as vice president. He was especially vulnerable because, although Eisenhower had no hesitation in sending Nixon out to lead the attack on the Democrats, he seemed to dislike the specific means that entailed and blamed the vice president for the resulting messy situation.60
For Nixon as well as Kennedy, 1956 was a turning point. Nixon's accomplishment was to survive the undermining efforts of his Republican enemies. Led by Harold Stassen, elements in the party and the White House did their best to convince Eisenhower that Nixon would be a drag on the ticket and should be replaced. Eisenhower, for his part, appeared to be willing to consider someone else as his running mate. Whether Ike was serious or merely attempting to stimulate interest in the Republican convention is open to question. In April 1956, after several months of uncertainty, the announcement that Nixon was Ike's choice to continue as vice president was made. Nixon survived, although the experience was an unpleasant one. Everyone knew that with Eisenhower unable to run again in 1960, the 1956 decision put Nixon in the forefront to succeed Eisenhower.61
Nixon was smart enough to see his problems and know his vulnerabilities. Beginning in 1956, he set out to redefine himself. This would be the first of several “new” Nixons to surface over the years. He was milder and less combative in his campaign speeches in 1956. After November, with Eisenhower's support and assistance, he began to focus his attention on foreign affairs. Eisenhower sent him on several international trips to represent the United States in 1957, 1958, and 1959, and Nixon made good impressions. The trip to the Soviet Union in 1959 proved to be a publicity coup as he engaged Nikita Khrushchev in the famous “kitchen debate.” By the second half of 1959, Richard Nixon had managed the successful transition from the partisan zealot and the political “Mr. Fix It” of the early and mid-1950s to a more respected statesmanlike figure. Although not without liabilities, he was in an excellent position to pursue the presidency in 1960.
As John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon planned their paths to their respective party nominations, they established a cordial relationship with each other. They had much in common. They were about the same age, with Nixon four years older, and they came to Washington in the same year, 1947, after both had won election to the House of Representatives in 1946. They reflected different constituencies, but both were political realists and their positions on foreign policy were similar.
Despite the party differences, the two men had a high regard for each other. Joseph P. Kennedy contributed to Nixon's Senate bid in 1950, and (p.48) JFK told people he was pleased that the Republican had won. He also sent Nixon a letter in 1952 saying he was “tremendously pleased” by the Californian's nomination as vice president. The New Englander added, “You were an ideal selection.” Kennedy's Senate office was directly across the hall from Nixon's vice-presidential office in the mid-1950s. Nixon was greatly troubled by Kennedy's near-death in 1954 and was a frequent visitor to Kennedy's office after his return from back surgery. He sent word that, in the narrowly divided Senate, he would not allow Republicans to take advantage of the Kennedy absence to take over the upper house. Nixon sent a letter supporting Kennedy's admission to membership in the exclusive Burning Tree Club in Washington. As late as May 1958, Kennedy described Nixon as “a man of really enormous ability who was consistently underestimated” and stated he would be a “formidable man to beat in 1960.”62
The Kennedy-Nixon relationship was a cordial one, but Nixon liked and admired Kennedy more than the reverse. Although JFK respected Nixon's political skills, he was hardly the kind of individual Kennedy sought out for social companionship. And Nixon's speeches with their sentimentality and appeal to middle-class pieties were emphatically not Kennedy's style. Given the very different natures of the two men, it was inevitable that once they were locked in their great contest, John F. Kennedy developed a distaste for his Republican opponent. Nixon, however, remained admiring of John F. Kennedy and fascinated with the Kennedy family into the 1980s and even beyond. The unequal nature of the Kennedy-Nixon relationship gave JFK a psychological advantage over Richard Nixon when the two men became rivals for the highest office in the land in 1960. The vice president never unleashed the attack he could have on the Massachusetts senator. Kennedy, in contrast, had no difficulty in rhetorically assaulting his opponent in the harshest terms.63
(1.) See Ambrose, Nixon, 607. The most recent accounts of the election are Donaldson, First Modern Campaign; Pietrusza, 1960—LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon; Rorabaugh, The Real Making of the President; and Gifford, The Center Cannot Hold. All of these new works continue to subscribe implicitly or explicitly to White's thesis.
(2.) With forty-eight states in the Union, there were forty-eight governors, ninetysix senators, and 435 members of the House of Representatives. To the extent the preceding figures do not add up to these numbers, the differences are accounted for by officeholders who bore a different party identification and by vacancies.
(3.) Ladd, Transformations, 291–92.
(4.) On 1948, see Donaldson, Truman Defeats Dewey; and Gullan, The Upset That Wasn't.
(6.) For the Eisenhower revival, see especially Greenstein, Hidden-Hand Presidency; and Ambrose, Eisenhower. Both books appeared in the 1980s and were representative of a revisionism that significantly elevated Eisenhower's standing. For the Schlesinger article, see Schlesinger, “Our Presidents.” Schlesinger rejoiced in Ike's low ranking (see Schlesinger, Journals, 1952–2000, 162, 278). For a sense of the academic milieu in which the anti-Eisenhower spirit flourished, see Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager; and Schlesinger, Journals, 1952–2000. Schlesinger and company, though, were largely out of touch with reality. Schlesinger thought Stevenson was going to win in 1952. In 1972, he was of the opinion that that year's presidential election would be “very close” (see Schlesinger, Journals, 1952–2000, 19–22, 362).
(7.) See, for example, Neustadt, Presidential Power; and Rossiter, The American Presidency.
(8.) Alexander, Holding the Line, xv–xvi. See also Reichard, Politics as Usual. Reichard is more complimentary of Eisenhower.
(9.) On Eisenhower and the press, see Halberstam, Fifties, 702–4; The Reminiscences of Charles Roberts, November 20, 1972, p. 7, in the Oral History Collection of Columbia University. Fletcher Knebel took a poll of reporters on the Eisenhower (p.219) campaign train in 1952 and found them two to one for Stevenson (see The Reminiscences of Edward Folliard, September 1, 1967, p. 19, in the Oral History Collection of Columbia University). For the Eisenhower quote on Alsop, see Ambrose, Eisenhower, 563. On Lippmann and Stevenson, see Steel, Walter Lippmann, 480–84, 502, 506.
(10.) Ambrose, Eisenhower, 26–28.
(11.) For an exposition of Eisenhower's core values and his decision-making process, see Snead, Gaither Committee, 15–42.
(12.) The low point came in late 1958, when his approval sank to 52 percent with 30 percent disapproval. By early 1960, Eisenhower's approval rating had rebounded to 64 percent with 22 percent disapproving (see Gallup, ed., Gallup Poll, November 26, 1958 [poll conducted November 7–12, 1958], 3:1579; ibid., April 8, 1960 [poll conducted March 30–April 4, 1960], 3:1661).
(13.) Ladd, Transformations, 27, 233–35, 262–65; Sundquist, Dynamics, 228–29.
(14.) Brownell, Advising Ike, 126; Ambrose, Eisenhower, 118; Ambrose, Nixon, 548.
(15.) Sundquist, Dynamics, 287; Ambrose, Nixon, 484; Brownell, Advising Ike, 302.
(16.) I. Morgan, Eisenhower versus “The Spenders,” 99–100; I. Morgan, Deficit Government, 80–85; Sloan, Eisenhower, 143–51.
(17.) NYT, June 7, 1959, November 14, 1959.
(18.) Gallup, ed., Gallup Poll, November 26, 1958 (poll conducted November 7–12, 1958), 2:1579.
(19.) On the California intrigue featuring Nixon, Knowland, Knight, and Earl Warren, see Montgomery and Johnson, One Step, 105–23, 162–65, 189–201, 228–60.
(20.) NYT, November 2, 1958.
(21.) On the 1958 elections, see Ambrose, Eisenhower, 487–89; Ambrose, Nixon, 483–504; NYT, November 6, 1958; Montgomery and Johnson, One Step, 233–60, and Nixon, RN, 220. The Republican disadvantage increased with the admission of Alaska and Hawaii as states. Alaska joined the Union in January 1959 with one Democratic representative and two Democratic senators. Hawaii was admitted in August 1959 with one Democratic representative, one Democratic senator, and one Republican senator. With the addition of the two states, the count in the House of Representatives became 284–153. In the Senate, it became 66–34 (see Scammon, ed., America Votes—4, 18–23, 90–94).
(22.) On legislative numbers, see The Book of the States, 1960–1961, 37.
(23.) Alexander, Holding the Line, 243
(24.) On the Eisenhower comeback, see Ambrose, Eisenhower, 511–80; and Alexander, Holding the Line, 244–62. On Eisenhower's improved health, see Lasby, Eisenhower's Heart Attack, 253–62.
(25.) See Gallup, ed., Gallup Poll, December 7, 1958 (poll conducted November 7–12, 1958), 2:1581; ibid., November 22, 1959 (poll conducted November 12–17, 1959), 3:1642; ibid., November 25, 1959 (poll conducted November 12–17, 1959), 3:1642.
(p.220) (26.) See Caro, Master of the Senate, 840–41; and Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, 196–220.
(27.) On Khrushchev, see W. Taubman, Khrushchev; Beschloss, MAYDAY; Beschloss, Crisis Years; Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War; and Ulam, The Rivals.
(28.) Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War, 40–41; Beschloss, Mayday , 149–50; I. Morgan, Eisenhower versus the “Spenders,” 131. On the “bomber gap,” see Prados, Soviet Estimate, 38–50; and Barrett, CIA and Congress, 234–50.
(29.) The literature on the missile gap is extensive. For a sampling of work on the subject, see Roman, Eisenhower and the Missle Gap; Prados, Soviet Estimate, 65–66, 70–95, 111–20; Snead, Gaither Committee, 169–77, 180–81; Barrett, CIA and Congress, 262–73, 301–13, 323–30, 356–74; P. Taubman, Secret Empire, 270–80, 296–97, 323–24; Bottome, Missile Gap, 115–45; and Preble, Kennedy and the Missile Gap, 10–11, 44–45, 56–59, 72–73, 80–81, 86–87, 96–97, 106–9, 154–57.
(30.) On the missile gap coalition, see McDougall, Heavens and the Earth, 218–19; and Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War, 258.
(31.) On Symington, see McFarland, Cold War Strategist, 59–63, 69–72, 77–80, 85–96; and Olson, Symington, 335–37, 350–51, 364–66. There was little respect for Symington. When he was being considered as a vice-presidential nominee, two of the chief journalist allies of the Democrats, Joe Alsop and Philip Graham of the Washington Post, argued strongly against the choice of Symington because they did not consider him smart enough to be one heartbeat away from the presidency.
(32.) NYT, February 5, 1960.
(33.) NYT, November 14, 1959, September 1, 1959.
(34.) On Alsop, see J. Alsop, I've Seen the Best of It; Yoder, Joe Alsop's Cold War; and Merry, Taking on the World.
(35.) Stewart Alsop, “How Can We Catch Up?” SEP, December 14, 1957, 26ff., and “Our Gamble with Destiny,” SEP, May 16, 1959, 116–17; Thomas R. Phillips, “The Growing Missile Gap,” Reporter, January 8, 1959, 11; Joseph Alsop, “After Ike the Deluge,” WP, October 7, 1959.
(36.) Ambrose, Eisenhower, 560–63; Beschloss, MAYDAY, 154.
(37.) Beschloss, MAYDAY, 154; Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 34–35. On Allen Dulles and the missile gap, see Grose, Gentleman Spy, 473–74, 507; P. Taubman, Secret Empire, 273, 275, 296–97; and Helgerson, Getting to Know the President, chap. 3, pp. 5–6. By 1960, Eisenhower was completely fed up with the CIA and its performance and believed it required a massive restructuring (see Weiner, Legacy of Ashes, 166–67).
(38.) On the Gaither Report, see Snead, Gaither Committee.
(40.) Two other privately done studies, one by the Rockefeller Foundation and one from Johns Hopkins University, also registered doubts about U.S. defense policy (see Bottome, Missile Gap, 47–48; and Snead, Gaither Committee, 110–13).
(41.) Gallup, ed., Gallup Poll, February 10, 1960 (poll conducted December 10–12, (p.221) 1959), 3:1634; Bottome, Missile Gap, 238–39; Zaloga, The Kremlin's Nuclear Sword, 48–50; Ambrose, Ike's Spies, 276–78.
(42.) See Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 45, for the limits of the U-2 intelligence. For the Democratic reaction to the revelation that there was no missile gap and their refusal to admit their error, see Preble, Kennedy and the Missile Gap, 153–57; Theodore Sorensen OHI, March 24, 1964, JFKL, pp. 12–13; Stuart Symington OHI, September 4, 1964, JFKL, pp. 1–2; Symington, “Where the Missile Gap Went,” Reporter, February 15, 1961, 21–23; and Sorensen, Counselor, 188–89. See also Gaddis, We Now Know, 254–60.
(43.) Parmet, JFK, 10.
(44.) The Reminiscences of Edward P. Morgan, September 12, 1967, p. 52, in the Oral History Collection of Columbia University; Haldeman, Ends of Power, 69, 70; Sidey, “The Man and Foreign Policy,” in Thompson, ed., Nixon Presidency, 305.
(p.225) (45.) Ehrlichman, Witness to Power, 67; Dickerson, Among Those Present, 200.
(46.) Ambrose, Eisenhower, 601; Bradlee, Conversations with Kennedy, 32; Rovere, Final Reports, 145.
(47.) White, Making of the President, 299–300. See also Reston, Deadline, 406.
(48.) Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon, 166–67; RMN to Robert Collins, January 19, 1961, RMN PPP, GC, Box 163 (Robert Collins File), RMNL*; RMN to Herb Kaplow, February 21, 1961, RMN PPP, GC, Box 396, RMNL*; Ambrose, Nixon, 42–43; Reeves, President Nixon, 314. RMNL materials marked with an asterisk were originally viewed at the National Archives site in Laguna Niguel, California, where they were located until 2006. All Nixon's pre-presidential papers have been transferred from Laguna Niguel to the RMNL in Yorba Linda.
(49.) Sidey, “The Man and Foreign Policy,” in Thompson, ed., Nixon Presidency, 301; Harlow, “The Man and the Political Leader,” in Thompson, ed., Nixon Presidency, 10.
(50.) For Richard Nixon's early years, 1913–40, see Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon, 1–203; Ambrose, Nixon, 21–104; Parmet, Richard Nixon, 30–88; and Black, Richard M. Nixon, 1–74. Nixon's brothers were Harold (b. 1909, d. 1933), Francis Donald (b. 1914, d. 1987), Arthur (b. 1918, d. 1925), and Edward (b. 1930). For the latest inside view of the Nixon family, see the account of Nixon's youngest brother, Edward, in Nixon and Olson, The Nixons.
(51.) Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon, 98–99; Black, Richard M. Nixon, 70–71.
(52.) See Small, Presidency of Richard M. Nixon, 7; Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon, 246–54; Ambrose, Nixon, 105–16.
(53.) See Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon, 257–866; Gellman, Contender.
(54.) For the conventional view of 1946 and 1950, see Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon, 206–38, 515–621; and Mitchell, Tricky Dick. For the heterodox view and a strong rebuttal to Morris and Mitchell, see Gellman, Contender. Gellman has successfully debunked the Nixon demonology for 1946 and 1950 and become the standard on Nixon's controversial campaigns against Voorhis and Douglas. On 1952, see Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon, 737–866; Ambrose, Nixon, 271–300; and Parmet, Richard Nixon, 225–61. See also Harlow, “The Man and the Political Leader,” in Thompson, ed., Nixon Presidency, 5.
(55.) Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon, 861–62; S. Alsop, Nixon & Rockefeller, 147. On Rayburn's attitude toward Nixon, see Dulaney and Phillips, eds., Speak, Mister Speaker, 257–58, 264, 279, 343, 353, 414, 417.
(56.) McCullough, Truman, 909; Ambrose, Nixon, 501; D. B. Hardeman OHI, Interview II, March 12, 1969, LBJL, pp. 21, 22; Parmet, JFK, 15.
(57.) Nixon, RN, 110; RMN to Mrs. S. E. Bartley, November 16, 1961, RMN PPP, Sam Rayburn Correspondence, Box 22, RMNL; Crowley, Nixon off the Record, 13.
(58.) Summers, Arrogance of Power, 59–80; S. Alsop, Nixon & Rockefeller, 29; Cronkite, Reporter's Life, 187; Elizabeth Gatov OHI, 1978, JFKL, p.101.
(59.) Ambrose, Nixon, 300.
(60.) The Reminiscences of Robert Donovan, January 3, 1968, DDEL, p. 20, in the (p.226) Oral History Collection of Columbia University; Krock, Memoirs, 304–5; Ambrose, Nixon, 371–77.
(61.) Ambrose, Eisenhower, 292–326.
(62.) The work that most thoroughly explores the Kennedy-Nixon relationship is Matthews, Kennedy & Nixon. See also Nixon-Kennedy correspondence in RMNL, specifically RMN to Judge Samuel E. Whitaker, December 31, 1953; Jacqueline Kennedy to RMN, December 5, 1954; JFK to RMN, n.d. (but certainly 1952); Jacqueline Kennedy to RMN, January 8, 1958. In 1971, Nixon had Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children for a private visit to the White House. See also Chalmers Roberts OHI, November 8, 1977, JFKL, p. 29, for JFK's positive assessment of Nixon and his abilities in May 1958.
(63.) On Nixon's continuing admiration for JFK, see Manchester, Death of a President, 447. On the Kennedy-Nixon relationship in 1960, see Matthews, Kennedy & Nixon, 127–91. There is no doubt that during 1960 Kennedy developed a disdain for Nixon (see Schlesinger, Journals, 1952–2000, 87; Bradlee, Conversations with Kennedy, 32). However, before 1960, the Democrat got along quite well with the California Republican. After 1959, though, Kennedy mythology and Nixon demonization demanded that the earlier good relations be consigned to oblivion, and so they have in most accounts.