The campaign dance, Kennedy-Nixon style | AspenTimes.com
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The campaign dance, Kennedy-Nixon style

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly

When Theodore H. White wrote his first account of a presidential campaign, “The Making Of The President — 1960,” the world was a much different place than it is today, although some similarities can be detected.

Television was still in relative infancy as a political tool, somewhat analogous to the Internet today. The nation was experiencing an economic slowdown and setbacks in its leadership position among the nations of the world, similar in nature if not in depth to what has happened to the U.S. in recent times; and a well-known, moderately popular vice president, Republican Richard Nixon, was being challenged by a much younger upstart, Democrat John F. Kennedy, again somewhat like today’s contest between political veteran John McCain and newcomer Barack Obama.

But some things were very different.

For one thing, while White devoted many pages to the Negro Vote, he clearly never entertained the idea that a black man would run for the highest office of the land in just under 50 years.

Another clear difference was the fact that Nixon was running for president after eight years of Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, which was one of the most popular in modern history. McCain’s campaign, of course, has been dragged downward by the lowest approval ratings in the country’s history for President George W. Bush.

White’s account of the campaign is a fascinating dip into a fabled part of U.S. history, and White handles it masterfully, if a little effusively at times. His affection, even adoration for the Kennedy mystique is a little too obvious in many parts of the book, while his attitude toward Nixon often vacillates between condescension and pity. Even in passages where he gives Nixon credit for an upbeat speech or a politically astute move, a tone of pathos and bemusement creeps in.

Still, White’s book, published in 1961, remains a classic study of electoral politics as seen from inside the campaigns of the two major candidates.

He is scrupulous in his search for details that both illuminate the campaign strategies of the protagonists and give a glimpse into the broader state of the union and the world.

From foreign-policy crises to sporting events in the U.S., White gives the reader the flavor of the moment.

Probably because Kennedy won the election, not to mention White’s admiration, this is a book more about the Kennedy machine than anything else. But it also provides glimpses into the historically powerful political influences of the middle 20th Century, from the Tammany machine in New York to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago Democratic machine, from the splintering of the Dixiecrats to the confusion that reigned in the nation’s heartland, once a Republican stronghold.

The book also offers occasionally unintended painful touchstones, such as the fact that throughout the 1960 campaign the name of the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (demolished in late 2005) cropped up repeatedly as the site of several politically charged moments. Of course, what White had no way of knowing was that less than a decade later, Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, would be assassinated in that same hotel.

It was tantalizing to re-read this account of one of the more famous political battles in our nation’s history, just as we experience what undoubtedly will be remembered as another political milestone ” no matter who wins on Nov. 4 .

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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