Remembering the Kennedy-Nixon Election of 1960
This Thanksgiving season we recall the presidential transition of 57 years ago. In our era, the United States is the most important country in the world. Successful transitions of power are something for which to be thankful. The whole world – the failing countries of Europe, the kleptocracies and one party states in Africa, the hodgepodge south of the American border, emerging Asia, and the rest always look with some blend of awe, anticipation and anxiety on the American elections.
We don’t always get it right, but our constitutional process always results in peaceful transition, although the urban rioting that followed the election of Donald J Trump must be seen as an asterisk to this comment, albeit a minor one.
Let’s go to 1960 and look at it from the perspective of members of that small and select group, the US Presidents. See photo of John Kennedy and Richard. Nixon in their first debate.
Six men who either had been or would be presidents participated in the 1960 election. Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman made speeches for Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Dwight Eisenhower was the incumbent. Lyndon Johnson was the Democrat nominee for Vice President.
On election night Vice President Nixon conceded to Kennedy and from that moment until his inauguration, JFK was recognized as the President-elect. However, as was later shown, President Eisenhower wanted the Justice Department to investigate allegations of fraud in the vote count. What was this all about?
1. JFK beat Nixon in the Electoral College by an apparently large margin: 303 219. But that is deceptive. Kennedy won Illinois and Texas by very slim margins. If Nixon had won those states, he would have won the election.
2. The tallies in Illinois and Texas were controversial because Richard J. Daley, the Mayor of Chicago, and Lyndon Johnson of Texas both had track records of abetting voter fraud. The New York Herald-Tribune documented dozens of examples of possible fraud in the 1960 election. (JFK was reported to say about Daley and Johnson : “Thank God for a few honest crooks.”)
The voting in these two states was what concerned Eisenhower. However, in the interests of national stability Nixon was against the challenges and Eisenhower let the matter drop.
But there is an interesting historical question: who won the popular vote that year?
“…Richard J. Daley, the Mayor of Chicago, and Lyndon Johnson of Texas both had track records of abetting voter fraud. The New York Herald-Tribune documented dozens of examples of possible fraud in the 1960 election. (JFK was reported to say about Daley and Johnson : “Thank God for a few honest crooks.”)
1. In Alabama, where there were 11 electoral votes, Kennedy’s name was not on the ballot. Alabama voters chose between Richard Nixon and a slate of “unpledged Democrat electors.” Earlier in the year a statewide Democrat primary had selected five electors who were committed to JFK and six who were free to vote for anyone. This Democrat slate beat Nixon , 324,050 237,981.
2. At the Electoral College, the six unpledged electors voted for Harry Byrd of Virginia, and the five pledged to Kennedy stuck with him.
3. However: When the Associated Press at the time counted up the popular vote from all 50 states it tallied all the Democratic votes, whether or not they were for electors pledged to Kennedy in the Kennedy column. Since 1960, counts have always given all of Alabama’s Democrat votes to Kennedy .
But those Democrat voters were not voting for Kennedy. They were voting for a slate, of which only 5/11 was pledged to him and indeed ended up voting for him. If in Alabama, Kennedy was only assigned 5/11 of the Democratic vote, Nixon would have won in Alabama (but not the Electoral College) and Nixon would have had about fifty-eight thousand more popular votes that JFK nation-wide.
All of this was set aside in historical memory for two reasons:
• Nixon’s selfless concession.
• JFK’s assassination.
Tomorrow, the election of 2000