It was, literally, the election of a generation.
The candidates both were in their 40s. Both had been Navy lieutenants. Both had been seared by their experience in World War II in the Pacific. Both had been marked by the appeasement that preceded and perhaps prompted the war across the Atlantic.
Both also represented distinct regional political cultures. Both sought the vice presidency as a stepping stone to the White House. Both were starry-eyed idealists — and steely political pragmatists. Both shaped their parties for decades to come. Both had names that started out as nouns and now are adjectives.
A half-century ago this week Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy — who had known each other in the House of Representatives — were concluding one of the closest and most consequential elections in American history.
The great divide
It was the first time since 1836 that future presidents opposed each other for the White House. To this day, Americans are stamped by whether they were for Nixon or Kennedy in 1960, when the future was not yet imperfect, when Cold War victory was not yet certain, when the most basic rights for blacks were not yet secure, when television was in black and white, like most of the choices and issues that faced America.
This was the month in 1960 when “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Route 66” premiered, when Cassius Clay won his first professional boxing match, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on a U.N. desk, when Nigeria and Mauritania became independent.
But it was also the month in which American voters prepared to choose between two men of a new generation — a generation, as one of them was fated to explain on a cold Inauguration Day three months later, that was “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world” — words that just as easily could have been spoken by Nixon as they were by Kennedy.
“It was one of those moments when a new generation was coming into politics — a time when everything about politics, social and cultural life was changing,” Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian and Kennedy family biographer, said in an interview. “Even Nixon would have been younger than Dwight Eisenhower and the whole generation that preceded Kennedy.”
Both men were born more than 20 years after Eisenhower — a two-decade period in which Populism rose and fell, Theodore Roosevelt and Progressivism dominated our politics, the automobile and the airplane became common modes of transport, and the cinema house became an important cultural meeting place.
A different world
Eisenhower’s formative years were during World War I, while Kennedy and Nixon’s were during the rise of the European dictators. Eisenhower graduated from West Point the spring the Lusitania was sunk. Nixon graduated from college in the worst month of the Dust Bowl, Kennedy just weeks before the opening of the Battle of Britain. The 1960s contestants, the first presidents born in the 20th century, were products of an entirely different world.
Their campaign — a contest perhaps unrivaled in intellectual firepower since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson ran against Charles Evans Hughes — produced an entirely different political world.
In this contest were the first televised debates, the maturation of the televised advertisements that began in 1952, a new emphasis on image. Indeed, many of the expectations we bring to presidential campaigns had their roots in the 1960 contest, whose folklore — the simple but potent notion, for example, that candidates ought not to perspire heavily on television — carries to this day. In so many ways, Kennedy and Nixon were present at the creation, a phrase that would not enter the American lexicon for another nine years.
Even now, 50 years after their landmark contest and years after their greatest speeches entered the political canon, comparisons to Kennedy and Nixon are common, particularly when it comes to daring political initiatives.
Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, which inspired an opera by the composer John Adams, is a metaphor for a brave change of course that takes advantage of a great opportunity. Kennedy’s 1962 declaration that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s is often cited as challenge worthy of the American heritage.
Indeed, those two examples underline two of the major themes of the second half of the 20th century — the importance of the Cold War, and the post-World War II generation’s veneration of aviation and awe of technology. These account for Nixon’s remark to the Apollo astronauts that his conversation with them was “the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House.”
In some ways the 1960s election settled everything — and nothing.
Kennedy eventually increased the U.S. commitment to Vietnam but, according to many of his advisers, would have begun to withdraw after the 1964 election. Nixon presided over the Vietnam conflict and began a withdrawal.
Kennedy was unsettled after his June 1961 Vienna meeting with Khrushchev, a session at which Nixon’s experience might have made a difference. Nixon eventually sought detente with the Soviet Union nearly a decade later.
Kennedy moved, reluctantly at first, on civil rights. Nixon used his Southern Strategy to create a new Republican South based in part on subliminal and cynical racial politics — though Nixon’s strong instinct for the underdog and the outsider might have pointed him in a different direction if he had won the pulpit of the presidency in 1960.
We now know that Kennedy, who was martyred in office, went into history remembered for his style, and Nixon, who relinquished office in disgrace, for his guile.
But the voters who supported Kennedy and those who supported Nixon formed an enduring cleavage in American life. Much would transpire in the ensuing half-century — the youth, sexual and women’s revolutions, the growth of a vigorous economic and social conservatism — but remnants of the 1960 fissure remain with us today.