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1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon - David Pietrusza

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Genre: Politics / Society / Philosophy / Author: David Pietrusza / 544 pages / Book published 2010-11-07 by Union Square

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      02.06.2011 09:51
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      A fascinating bit of US history

      I enjoy recent political history - anything since the Second World War is fair game for me. While I usually stick with UK history, as I know more about it and it has more immediate relevance, I have been increasingly tempted by the Americans recently. Last year one of the most enjoyable books I read was Race of a Lifetime by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, an account of 2008's presidential race. So I decided to go back in time a bit and check out this book, which follows the 1960 presidential election from the primaries through to election night itself.

      It ties in with a few other things I've read. The role played by Frank Sinatra and his entourage in the election is also covered in the fantastic Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy; and the Kennedys and Nixon turn up as supporting characters in James Ellroy's great America Trilogy. Kennedy and Nixon are probably the two presidents I'm most interested in. They book-end the 60s, which is always an interesting decade to read about; and they seem to represent the light and dark of American politics in a neatly symbolic way. (History is never really symbolic, of course, and Kennedy may have done some decent things politically, but he did some rotten things too, and was an over-privileged serial adulterer. But people who die young are always feted far beyond their deserts. Nixon, on the other hand, was every bit as awful as you'd imagine).

      As in Race of a Lifetime, the process of choosing each party's candidate is at least as interesting as the actual presidential race. Nixon was the incumbent Vice-President to the hugely popular Eisenhower. Nixon was never a loveable character, though, and even Eisenhower seems to have disliked him. But he was the logical choice for the Republican candidate, and in spite of an eccentric challenge from Nelson Rockefeller, got there without too many hassles.

      It was very different for Kennedy. He had a lot more obstacles to overcome - his inexperience, his Catholicism, his patchy attendance and voting records in the Senate, his terrible health, and a lot of potential sex scandals waiting to come out. But what he did have was a fabulously wealthy, utterly evil father, Joe Kennedy, who had famously supported Hitler and allegedly made a lot of money working with the mafia during Prohibition. Joe was determined that one of his sons should become President, and when his eldest, Joe Jr, died during the war, it fell to Jack to live out his father's ambitions.

      The Democrat primaries and convention were a lot more boisterous than the Republican ones, with Kennedy having to try to please, or at least neutralise, northern and West Coast liberals *and* Southern racial segregationists. In the end his father's money (and mob connections) won out over ineffectual liberals like Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey, and the boisterous Southerner Lyndon Johnson. Johnson ended up on the ticket anyway as Vice-President, mainly to mollify the South. The two men couldn't stand one another, and it seems that JFK only offered LBJ the slot in the belief that he'd turn it down.

      Once all that was settled, the Presidential race itself got underway. It was largely concerned at first with Kennedy's attempts to persuade Americans that it was OK to vote for a Catholic as president. There are interesting digressions - a nice chapter on Sinatra's cronies, and how poor old Sammy Davis Jr's intended marriage to a white woman almost cost thousands of racist votes in the South. Race was a very different issue back then, with several Southern states operating a system of near-apartheid. Kennedy courted the northern black vote by supporting Martin Luther King, who was briefly imprisoned. But in doing so he risked alienating the Democrats' traditional Southern base. Johnson's presence as Veep is probably all that kept those states Democrat. The one truly shocking moment in the book comes when Johnson's comments to a black servant are quoted, the kind of naked, unadorned racism that was presumably part of everyday life in the South. (In his defense, it was Johnson who eventually ended segregation.)

      More digressions are provided by Kennedy's colourful love life and his health problems, which eventually involved receiving amphetamine shots from a dodgy doctor. All of this was more or less kept from the public. Nixon, desperate to soften his image, strayed away from the combative politics that were his strong point, and kept making incredible gaffes. He chose an ineffectual intellectual, Henry Cabot Lodge, as his running mate. He did nothing to engage with Martin Luther King or try to reach out to black voters (despite - surprisingly - being more liberal on the issue than JFK; of the three future presidents involved in this election, Nixon would probably be least horrified by there being a black president today). And Eisenhower could never quite bring himself to endorse his deputy of eight years.

      The election campaign is most famous for the TV debates, the first ever held. The most attention is focused on the first, in which Nixon looked sweaty, ill-shaven and shifty under the hot studio lights, while Kennedy was tanned and confident. Nixon underwent a hilarious sequence of misfortunes in the run-up to the debate - exhaustion, a fever, a stay in hospital with a badly injured knee - and on the night itself he banged his injured knee and managed to get hit on the head with a microphone while standing up too quickly. If only someone had left a rake lying around near his dressing room.

      But in spite of all this, the election was incredibly close, even closer than the 2000 election. And there's more than a possibility that Kennedy only won through the use of electoral fraud in certain states, notably Illinois.

      It's fascinating seeing how similar and yet how different to today it is. Obviously TV was only in its early days and had yet to turn into the monster it became; but the first TV debate is stuck in the public consciousness as the first time TV really mattered in politics. And the increasingly vitriolic opposition between conservatives and liberals is all-too familiar today. Fears that Kennedy's religion and inexperience would make him unelectable were mirrored in similar fears about Obama's race and inexperience. The biggest difference is the way that the South is now firmly Republican, and the 1960 election started to see that switch beginning.

      The book doesn't need to make those kinds of comparisons (and it was written in 2008, so presumably predates Obama's presidential run). David Pietrusza has won huge acclaim for this and other books of political history, and it's easy to see why. He manages to marshal a large amount of information and present it in a logical, easy-to-understand way. Rather than give a chronological account, chapters are more thematic, so race is covered all in one chapter rather than dotted throughout. As the blurb says, it often reads more like a thriller than history, although one in which we all know the outcome. Perhaps inevitably, the final chapters, about election night itself, feel like a bit of an anti-climax (although Nixon's crazy day-trip to Tijuana on election day was an odd surprise).

      The quality of the writing in it is excellent. We don't seem to have British political writers of similar calibre at all. This passage about JFK is a good example of the way he writes about his characters (and struck a chord, as it could almost perfectly describe Tony Blair, too): "That cold glint in the Kennedy eye, the passionless power in his voice that supporters portrayed as sureness of purpose but that may have merely betrayed ruthless lust for power". It really feels like Pietrusza captures these people perfectly, especially the dark but ineffectual Nixon, not quite the Man From UNCLE villain of later years; and Bobby Kennedy, John's younger brother, also eventually beatified by assassination, and who comes across as a complete prick from beginning to end.

      The book's about 400 pages (plus a lot of footnotes). I got through it pretty quickly. There are a lot of people mentioned in this, and the author has helpfully provided a cast of characters at the beginning, just in case you forget which speechwriter works for which guy. There are quite a few photos, although most of them are just standard portrait shots of people mentioned in the text. I was hoping for one of Nixon banging his head or something.

      Obviously you'd need an interest in recent American history to want to read this - and it's useful to be familiar with terms like Jim Crow and GOP, and with general developments in the 50s - McCarthyism, Gary Powers, the Cuban Revolution etc. But it's a fascinating and well-written glimpse at America's political elite in an election year - always a good time to catch them off-guard - and 1960 was important enough to still be worth reading about.

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