I’m currently teaching my course “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics,” and in fact we were just reading about and discussing the 1960 race, including watching lengthy excerpts from the first JFK-RMN debate. I made sure to let my students know about last night’s program, then, for a couple of reasons.
For one, since we had only just gotten through discussing the race I thought they’d find it interesting to compare what we’d learned with what was included in the hour-long show. Secondly, I like reminding them how even though we’re studying people and events from a half-century ago, many are still interested in these things and believe them to be relevant today -- as indicated by CNN giving an hour of prime time to the ’60 race.
The ads for last night’s show made it seem as though the focus would be on the historic first debate (of four) between Kennedy and Nixon that took place on September 26, 1960, a notion furthered by the fact that the show was being paired with the Dems’ debate. In truth, though, the debate only earned a tiny bit of attention during the hour, fleetingly discussed for just a few minutes during the latter half of the show.
The rest of the hour was spent covering the respective candidates’ campaigns via commentary from a few academics and others, the showing of numerous clips from 1960, and some fleeting reenactments employed to enhance the story. Kevin Spacey -- evoking his House of Cards role as U.S. president -- is the narrator for the series, and was heard at the start of the hour suggesting (somewhat misleadingly) that Nixon was hopelessly outmatched by Kennedy as a politician and campaigner.
“You think you know the rules,” he says as we watch an actor portraying Nixon in shadowy profile. “But what happens when you discover you don’t even know how to play the game?”
Following such a line, it isn’t surprising to see a lot of emphasis thereafter on Kennedy’s right moves and Nixon’s wrong ones during the campaign. That said, the show provides some balance as well, illustrating in a necessarily cursory way pros and cons for both candidates. Near the end it is emphasized that JFK was as adept as RMN was when it came to “dirty tricks,” although the show doesn’t really dwell on too many examples (other than alluding to possible voter fraud in Illinois and Texas tilting the election JFK’s way).
Nixon’s eagerness to debate Kennedy is correctly presented as a misstep. During the quick presentation of the first debate, Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow and flop sweat is of course highlighted, and in fact there’s even a quick pre-debate clip of Nixon saying “think I better shave.” The much-repeated line about those listening on radio thinking Nixon “won” the debate while TV viewers favored JFK is uncritically repeated again, something that started as a few anecdotes and got blown up into some sort of ultimate signifier of not just the debate but the entire campaign and election.
Other more meaningful moments from the 1960 campaign are highlighted, including JFK’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Martin Luther King’s arrest in Georgia and JFK’s phone call to Coretta, and a couple of Nixon’s “bad luck” moments including being hospitalized for two full weeks at the end of August and beginning of September.
Nixon’s hospitalization resulted from an infection that resulted from his banging his knee on a car door during a stop in Greensboro, NC in mid-August, part of his foolhardy effort to visit all 50 states during the campaign -- something he insisted on doing even after his injury and hospitalization.
In his discussion of the 1960 campaign in Six Crises (written shortly afterwards), Nixon concludes with a list of 16 things he “should have” done, all decisions which in his mind likely contributed to costing him the election. He does not include campaigning in all 50 states among the list of items, though he does lead it off with “I should have refused to debate Kennedy.”
For the second item on the list, and perhaps the second-most important one in retrospect, Nixon says “I should have used Eisenhower more in the campaign.” There is brief reference to Ike having been largely absent from the campaign near the end of the CNN program. With less than a week to go before the election, Spacey’s narration suggests the Nixon campaign had been cleverly waiting to use Eisenhower at the very last to produce a greater effect.
“Nixon has one last card to play,” he says, “his old boss, ex-General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.” Despite the card-playing metaphor, no indication is made to the fact that both Ike and Nixon were poker players.
We see shots from the ticker tape parade of November 2nd in which Ike finally appeared with Nixon, an event which is said to have given Nixon a late boost as Election Day drew near. I anticipated another turn in the story here -- one explaining how this “one last card” wasn’t nearly as effective as it might have been. But the program moved in a different direction.
This might have been the biggest omission from the show, actually. Not only was Eisenhower mostly absent from the campaign, but in late August 1960 (just a week after Nixon bumped his knee in Greensboro), Eisenhower infamously concluded his weekly press conference with a line that would greatly hurt RMN in the weeks leading up to the debate.
“We understand that the power of decision is entirely yours, Mr. President,” began a reporter, leading up to what would be the last question of the presser. “I just wondered if you could give us an example of a major idea of his [i.e., Nixon's] that you had adopted in that role, as the decider and final, uh....”
About to leave, Eisenhower said “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”
Afterwards Eisenhower would say he didn’t mean to suggest he actually needed a week to come up with an idea of Nixon’s his administration had found useful. Rather he was just referring to the fact that he’d be giving another press conference a week later and they could continue the discussion then.
But the damage was done. In fact, in that first debate a month later Nixon would be asked early on about Eisenhower’s statement, putting RMN on the defensive right away. And not long after that, the Kennedy campaign built a television ad around Ike’s line -- take a look:
I was a little surprised CNN didn’t touch on this part of the story of the 1960 campaign, the moment when Nixon’s “ace in the hole” suddenly turned into a useless blank. Still, for those unfamiliar with the 1960 race there was enough in the program perhaps to whet your appetite to learn more.
Image: Graphic from CNN advertisement, Race for the White House, 3/6/16 episode.