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the real making of the president

9 july 2009

W.J. Rorabaugh's Real Making of the President is a debunking history. The story of the 1960 Presidential election seemed told once for all in Theodore White's Making of the President (which then became curiously confused with the unrelated T.H. White's Sword and the Stone, and Camelot, and "Johnny we hardly knew ye," and the Thousand Days, and the greatest assembly of talents since Thomas Jefferson dined alone, and all the rest of it). Well, we have suspected for some time that the proportion of clay to marble in John F. Kennedy's Presidential substance was larger than White allowed, but the basic triumphal narrative of the 1960 election has never been displaced. Rorabaugh, despite some clunky and overstated rhetoric, sets many things right and gives the first comprehensive, balanced account of this famous election.

Rorabaugh achieves balance through a refreshing application of bias. He just plain doesn't like Jack Kennedy, and he has even fewer good things to say about Bobby. The historical patina of sainthood has grown so thick on the two martyred Kennedys that sheer visceral dislike is almost a prerequisite for humanizing their story.

At the same time, Rorabaugh portrays Richard Nixon as an incompetent and somewhat deranged campaigner who kicked away his own chances at a 1960 election victory. He's not very complimentary about Adlai Stevenson (commenting on the cerebral Illinoisan's "unfitness for high office," 78); and while observing that JFK in large part bought his primary victories with his father's inexhaustible funds, Rorabaugh goes on to say that "[Hubert] Humphrey bought votes, too. He just had less money with which to do so" (203).

The hero of the story, if there is one, is Lyndon Johnson. While unable to avoid Robert A. Caro's by-now-canonical portrait of LBJ as a bizarre megalomaniac, Rorabaugh soft-pedals many of Caro's characterizations. Johnson comes across as a fount of good humor, and the ultimate political strategist. Indeed, one can make a strong case that without LBJ as his running mate, JFK would never have seen the White House except on Senatorial visits to President Nixon. Johnson held together what little was left of the old Democratic "solid south," and produced amazing vote totals, sometimes far in excess of precinct populations, to ensure that JFK won the crucial 24 electoral votes of Texas.

There is ample reason to conclude that fishy practices prevailed in both Texas and Illinois, without which Kennedy would not have obtained an Electoral College majority. But Nixon very nearly won the election anyway. Nixon failed where Kennedy succeeded: in his choice of running mate. Usually, running mates don't matter in the least. It is true that Joe Biden is a distinguished statesman and that Sarah Palin comes across as an idiot on her better days. But John McCain could have picked Kay Hutchison as his running mate while Barack Obama ran with Joe the Plumber, and Joe would most likely be presiding over the Senate right now.

But 1960 was the great exception. While Kennedy prevented an all-out Southern exodus from his party by enlisting Johnson, Richard Nixon was unable to close a deal with the one politician who could have performed Johnson-like wonders for his ticket: New York's charismatic and fabulously wealthy governor, Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon instead opted for Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts statesman who added nothing to the ticket and had no hope of carrying his own state for the Republicans. It wasn't so much that Lodge was a bad choice; he added some gravitas to Nixon's callow image. (Asked what Nixon had achieved as Vice President, Dwight Eisenhower replied, "If you give me a week, I might think of something.") It was rather that the failure of Nixon and Rockefeller to come to terms left Nixon without the additional base of power and energy that a powerful running mate could have offered. Even if Democratic shenanigans stole Illinois and Texas – even if Rockefeller could not have delivered New York itself, where the Democratic machine was equally strong – Nixon could still have won by using Rocky's liberal creds and liberal spending to take New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, three states that he lost by a grand total of only 200,000 votes.

But Nixon feared being seen as too left-wing, and feared equally to adopt the Southern Strategy that would characterize Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964 and Nixon's own landslide win in 1972. Meanwhile, JFK cheerfully lacked scruples, running as a liberal in Northern cities and a Yellow Dog LBJ Democrat in the segregated South – or rather, giving the appearance of doing so, and in the New Frontier politics of 1960, appearance was everything.

The lessons Rorabaugh draws from 1960 are ultimately a bit weak. He concludes that a winning candidate must run as a political moderate and be charming on TV. Kennedy, on balance, played as a moderate, and of course was as charming as all hell. But I don't buy Rorabaugh's assessment that every President since has followed the Kennedy lead. Ronald Reagan came across like Barry Goldwater's crazier cousin, and won two elections handily. Reagan certainly had charm, but his successors, the Bushes 41 and 43, were among the more inept television personalities of their day (though it's all relative; one must remember that the Bushes ran against Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry, who made office furniture look personable by comparison). And by 2004, at least, nobody was any longer fooled about the compassionateness of 43's conservatism.

The more interesting features of 1960 to me are not its lessons but its status as a way-station in the ever-evolving nature of American political sectionalism. Kennedy, though a Cold Warrior, ran on a domestic platform of big-spending liberalism and civil rights – and of course, he was a Roman Catholic. Yet he won not only New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Illinois, but some of the most rock-ribbed states of the Deep South (Louisiana, Georgia, the Carolinas, and half of Alabama's electoral votes). Nixon, a conservative Protestant Republican trying to avoid most issues, with a half-hearted commitment to civil rights, won the more liberal of the Southern states (Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida). The complicated implications of this division are still echoing today. I like Rorabaugh's book for its insistence that the past was every bit as complicated and contradictory as the present.

Rorabaugh, W.J. The Real Making of the President: Kennedy, Nixon, and the 1960 election. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.