A historian revisits the exciting, close-run 1960 campaign.
In what’s becoming something of a specialty, Pietrusza (1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, 2007, etc.) turns again to a presidential race that included two men in walk-on roles who would later hold the office, Ford and Reagan, and featured three who would occupy the Oval Office for the next 14 years. Since Theodore White’s 1961 classic The Making of the President, 1960, we’ve learned more about John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Milhous Nixon, much of it unflattering, and almost all of it reflected in this colorful, character-driven narrative. Pietrusza examines the candidates’ manifold personal shortcomings, flaws either unseen or at least unspoken by White, including JFK’s dangerous philandering and even more dangerous health, LBJ’s curious blend of bullying cowardice and vanity, and Nixon’s deep resentments and insecurities. In a race where the candidates were all children of the New Deal and all confirmed cold warriors, personalities dominated, and the finally mature technology of television brought those personalities into the country’s living rooms. Pietrusza is especially strong covering the crucial Kennedy-Nixon TV debates and, while he pauses to consider other incidents upon which the vote may have turned, he remains focused on character. He also looks at the hapless Hubert Humphrey, outspent in the critical West Virginia primary, Nelson Rockefeller, outmaneuvered by Nixon, and Adlai Stevenson and Stuart Symington, both outhustled by Kennedy. Among many others, Pietrusza’s cast includes Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Sr., both wary of Kennedy’s Catholicism; Dwight Eisenhower, forever holding Nixon at arms length; Frank Sinatra, virtually pimping for JFK; Sam Giancana and Richard J. Daley, mobster and mayor of Chicago respectively, funneling money and votes to Kennedy; and Joseph P. Kennedy, the mastermind and bank behind his son’s bid for the White House.
A lively look at the underside of a campaign foreshadowing three successive presidencies that would end in assassination, failure and disgrace.