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A revisionist take on JFK's 1960 election

The Real Making of the President: Kennedy, Nixon, and the 1960 Election - W. J. Rorabaugh

In 1961 the journalist Theodore White published his book The Making of the President, 1960. As an entertaining first-hand account of the close 1960 presidential election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, it spawned a new genre of campaign histories written by the journalists who covered them, a sort of "history 1.5." With the notable exception of Richard Ben Cramer's What it Takes, however, none have ever risen to the level of White's seminal work.

Yet while White's book has long stood as the standard account of the election, it is not without its flaws. Foremost among them, as William Rorabaugh points out, is its bias: White's description of the handsome young Kennedy triumphing over the less-appealing Nixon reflected the greater amount of time that White spent with the Kennedy campaign and the greater access he was granted to it. White's account also suffers to a degree from a lack of hindsight, as political trends barely visible to White and his contemporaries stand out much more clearly with the perspective of time. This desire to revise and supersede White's book is at the heart of Rorabaugh's study, which benefits from archival and published material to offer a revised interpretation of the contest.

The book begins with an overview of presidential politics in the 1950s. This was a decade dominated by the genial figure of Dwight Eisenhower, who won easily the two elections in 1952 and 1956 and who presided over a generally prosperous nation. As his vice president, Nixon was well-positioned to inherit the Republican nomination in 1960, yet he still faced the ultimately-unrealized prospect of a challenge from the rising star of Nelson Rockefeller, who had been recently elected governor of New York. By contrast, nearly a half-dozen Democrats vied for their party's nomination, with Kennedy winning it through a combination of organization, effort, corruption, and personal appeal.

Kennedy's nomination posed a dilemma to Nixon in terms of his strategy, as he faced the question of whether to focus his appeal on African Americans in the North or white Southerners. Had the Democrats nominated one of the other contenders, such as Lyndon Johnson or Stuart Symington, Nixon would have been well positioned to appeal to the potentially decisive body of African American voters in Northern cities. Kennedy's nomination pointed the way to the latter option, yet his selection of Johnson as his vice president (a decision that, along with Rockefeller's refusal of the Republican vice-presidential nomination, Rorabaugh sees as the main factor in the eventual result) raised doubts as to the effectiveness of that approach. Ultimately Nixon couldn't decide which avenue to pursue, which opened up both groups to Democrats' appeals and resulted in a solid majority in the electoral college.

By challenging preconceived notions about the 1960 election, Rorabaugh's book provokes the reader into a stimulating reexamination of the contest. Yet the book suffers from a couple of notable shortcomings. For all of his claims to reinterpretation, Rorabaugh's bibliography is curiously dated, with a number of important works (most surprisingly Robert Dallek's invaluable biography of JFK, An Unfinished Life) unaccountably absent. This constrains his interpretation of the factors in the election to the short-term developments of the 1950s, leaving out any consideration of the influence of longer-term trends such as the shift of the South away from the Democrats in presidential politics (which, as Kari Frederickson demonstrated in The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, predated the decade). Because of this, while achieving its author's goal of improving on White's classic, the book falls short in its analysis of this memorable presidential election.