The Election of 1960
The Election of 1960
During President Truman’s first term in office, Congress passed the Twenty- Second Amendment, which limited a president to two terms in office. The Republican majority in Congress wanted to ensure that no Democratic president would ever again, like FDR, be elected to four terms. Had this amendment not been ratified, the popular Dwight D. Eisenhower might well have served a third term; however, he had to step down in 1960.
The election of 1960 pitted Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts against Republican Vice President Richard Nixon of California. Both men had been elected to the U.S. Congress in 1946; both had progressed from the House to the Senate, Nixon in 1950 and Kennedy in the following term. Kennedy had served there ever since, while Nixon had been Eisenhower’s vice president since 1952, and hoped to profit from Eisenhower’s enormous popularity. As a Catholic, Kennedy faced the same prejudice and bigotry that had helped to defeat Al Smith in 1928, but American society had grown more tolerant in the intervening years. Whenever the issue came up, Kennedy handled it with poise and confidence, assuring voters that, he believed in the strict separation of church and state and that as president, he would neither speak for the Catholic Church nor permit it to speak for him. Religion was not a decisive factor in the 1960 election.
Kennedy was a charming and witty man whom audiences found irresistibly attractive. His appearance and personality combined to convey a youthful energy and optimism that people found appealing. Kennedy was also a highly skilled campaigner, good at dealing with people and with the press. Nixon’s style was quite different; he had considerable political experience and was highly intelligent, but his stiff manner, his distrust and suspicion of reporters, and his determination to ignore his advisers and make all his own campaign decisions helped to defeat him. He was also handicapped in many people’s minds because of his association with the House Un-American Activities Committee and because of the McCarthy-style campaign tactics that he had used throughout his political career.
The contrast between the two candidates was never more apparent than during the first televised presidential debates in history. Kennedy looked pleasant, open, and relaxed on camera; he also had a considerable command of the facts on the issues that came up in questions. The cameras were not nearly so kind to Nixon, and Kennedy’s unexpected skills as a debater put Nixon on the defensive.
In November, the popular vote was so close that the outcome took a few days to call, but in the end Kennedy was chosen. Nixon later started a rumor that if he had demanded a recount of the votes in Illinois, the results might have been reversed. Nixon asserted that he had decided, for the good of the nation, that demanding a recount would be wrong. The facts belie the rumor: Kennedy won 303 electoral votes, Nixon 219, and Virginia Senator Harry Byrd 15. If Illinois’ 27 electoral votes had been moved to Nixon’s column, the totals would have been Kennedy 276, Nixon 246. With 270 electoral votes required to become president, Nixon would still have lost the election.
The Kennedy White House was characterized by style and flair. Many people have described the Kennedys as the closest thing the United States has ever had to a royal family. Much of this was due to First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy came from an upper-class family, had been educated in Paris, spoke French and Spanish fluently, dressed stylishly, and charmed every- one with her beautiful manners. She undertook the major project of restoring many of the public rooms in the White House, working hard to make it a visual record of presidential history. When the project was completed, the first lady gave a highly popular televised tour of the rooms, giving many Americans their first chance to see the inside of the Executive Mansion. Mrs. Kennedy also invited many of the day’s most prominent artists and writers to White House state dinners, creating a cultural atmosphere that the White House had conspicuously lacked under the Trumans and Eisenhowers. The Kennedys were the youngest couple ever to live in the White House, and their two toddlers were popular subjects for photographers.
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