Why It's Time to Get Past Teddy White's Naive Account of the 1960 Election


Mr. Rorabaugh, professor of history at the University of Washington, is the author of The Real Making of the President: Kennedy, Nixon, and the 1960 Election (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009). He is a member of the board of directors of HNN.

In 1960, forty-three-year-old John Kennedy won the presidency.  A year earlier, Kennedy had been a youthful senator barely into his second term little known by most Americans.  When Kennedy decided to run, party elders and media sages agreed that he was unlikely to be elected.  Many senators regarded Kennedy as a playboy and a lightweight.  As late as April 1960, only two senators had endorsed him.

To many Americans, Kennedy’s nomination and election seemed magical.  Kennedy liked this view of the 1960 election, and he fed a lot of information – today, we would call it spin – to the author Teddy White, who told the story of the contest in the first and most famous of his best-selling Making of the Presidentbooks.  White, a strong Kennedy supporter, wrote about the election as a horse race, which built a sense of drama for the book, and presented Kennedy as the virtuous white knight who defeated the dark and sinister Richard Nixon.  In retrospect, White seems to have been politically naïve. 

In reality, the 1960 election was more complicated.  Kennedy defied the odds to win both the Democratic nomination and the election by using masses of family money, a large organization, and a mastery of television.  He would have been neither nominated nor elected without all three ingredients.  Of the three, money was arguably the most important.  Money made it possible to hire excellent staff, such as the brilliant speechwriter Ted Sorensen.  By early 1960, Kennedy had a staff ten times larger than Richard Nixon’s, a fact that the Republican later cited as one reason for Kennedy’s victory.

Money helped Kennedy travel around the country to become better known, enabled the candidate to line up delegates prior to the Democratic National Convention, and bought television advertising.  In the crucial West Virginia primary, Kennedy outspent his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, on television by seventeen-to-one.  Additional money was used to buy votes, a West Virginia custom.  In the general election, Kennedy outspent Nixon.  In most presidential elections, the Republican spends more.

Money also paid for organizing key states with offices, paid staff, phone lines, and brochures.  Kennedy supporters were identified, registered, and coaxed to the polls.  For the fall campaign, Kennedy registered 8.5 million new Democrats.  Many were apolitical Catholics excited by a Catholic candidate.  Others were minorities attracted to Kennedy by his strong civil rights stand. 

Neither money nor organization would have mattered if Kennedy had been clumsy on television.  Cool and laconic, he had a natural affinity for the new medium, but he also worked hard to project an image of competence and thoughtfulness to counteract the charge that he was too young and inexperienced.  Kennedy videotaped events and carefully studied the tapes, especially watching crowd reactions to key phrases.  In contrast, Nixon never watched himself on videotape.

White, along with the media, emphasized how Kennedy beat Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate.  Lacking Kennedy’s charisma, Nixon had stressed that the vice presidency had given him superior “experience,” but when voters saw the two side-by-side, Nixon’s experience seemed unimportant.  On black-and-white television, Kennedy’s white face and dark suit stood out clearly in contrast with Nixon’s gray face and gray suit, which faded into the studio’s gray background.  Bad make-up and clothes probably cost Nixon the debate before he uttered a word.  Pollsters estimated that Kennedy gained two million votes from the first debate.

Kennedy won this close election with only slightly over a 100,000 vote edge in the popular vote.  In the Electoral College, stolen votes in Illinois and Texas may have provided the margin of victory.  Had Nixon won both states, he would have won the election.  White’s white knight versus black knight storyline is hard to reconcile either with the close result or with a victory dependent upon stolen votes.

One key to Kennedy’s victory that White downplayed was Kennedy’s decision to pick Lyndon Johnson for vice president.  Johnson had a reputation as a conservative southerner, and liberals were appalled when Kennedy offered Johnson, the runner-up in the presidential balloting, the vice presidency.  Electoral math was behind Kennedy’s decision.  He could not win without Texas, and he needed Johnson to carry Texas.

In 1960, the traditionally Democratic South was in play.  When Johnson campaigned by train throughout the region, he put on a thick southern accent and invoked Confederate ancestors.  He also talked to 1,247 local Democratic leaders on board the train, explaining that he could be the link to Kennedy.  Since there were few southern Republicans in 1960, the South had no link to Nixon.  At a train stop in Virginia, Johnson yelled, “What’s Dick Nixon ever done for Culpeper?”

Parts of the Deep South considered picking unpledged Democratic electors who would withhold votes from Kennedy unless he opposed civil rights.  Johnson’s presence on the ticket impeded this movement.  Only Mississippi and a portion of Alabama’s electors ended in the unpledged column.  Without Johnson, Louisiana and Georgia might have joined them, and the Carolinas and Texas would have gone to Nixon.  If Kennedy had been shut out of the South, he would have lost.  White, a northeasterner, all but ignored the unpledged elector movement.

Despite Johnson’s success, the 1960 election showed signs that the South might shift to the Republicans.  Nixon, yearning for southern white votes, failed to follow Nelson Rockefeller’s advice to go after northern African American votes.  Kennedy went after those votes himself, especially with his famous phone call to Coretta Scott King, while he cleverly used Johnson to hold the South.  Nixon straddled and lost both southern whites and northern African Americans. 

In a larger sense, Kennedy’s election marked a turning point in American politics.  Money, organization, and television, but especially money, would be the new watchwords.  Kennedy spent $13 million to win the presidency.  Forty-eight years later, the total cost of the 2008 presidential election exceeded $1 billion.  Whether money-driven politics has given us better presidents or better government is an open question.  It has made it possible for outsiders, if funded well, to be nominated and elected.

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vaughn davis bornet - 5/7/2010

Always, historians using contemporary book accounts of great events must disallow the embellishments that have made book publication possible.

It's fun to read a book account on the passing scene shortly after it passes. All know, however, that dull mss. don't attract publishers and that the press is going to be "commercial" rather than a ponderously slow academic venue; if commercial, it will have to exhibit Flash and the Spritely, the Spirited, while personalities must be sharply defined--whether or no.

The contemporary book author simply cannot afford to produce a mss. that has "doctoral dissertation" all over it. He/she will be supervising research assistants, not plugging away slowly free of deadlines in the archives.

I was startled when working on Hoover, FDR, and Johnson to see the shallowness of contemporary literature. Oh, the memoirs were fun and highly useful; but those quickie books were a different matter.

Just a few ruminations that are so late I doubt there will be any readers at all!

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/9/2009

Richard Nixon tells the story from his point of view in his book, "My Six Crises." Nixon felt the evidence was incontrovertible that Kennedy had stolen both Illinois and Texas, but by contesting the election he would be doing harm to the United States, so he refused the many who urged him to do so. His behavior in this matter should always be contrasted with that of Al Gore in 2000, who proved Nixon's point by contesting the 2000 election without any evidence at all, and created an army of people who think he was robbed. Gore caused needless partisan strife, which continues to the present day.

Robert Lee Gaston - 6/2/2009


Most things that are interesting are both fascinating and tragic.

Kevin R Kosar - 6/1/2009

Ah yes, it is clearly IMPOSSIBLE for a phenomenon to be both fascinating and tragic.


Vernon Clayson - 6/1/2009

Fascinating?? You just read how an election was stolen and how easily voters are duped, that's not fascinating, that's tragic. We did it again with Bill Clinton, he had nice hair and winsome ways, now we've done it again with Obama because he's hip and has the attributes of a black celebrity. Who will be next after he's found out to be a shallow tool of smarter men? Surely we can find even more shallow candidates, perhaps an American Idol winner.

Craig Michael Loftin - 6/1/2009