The vice president was smart and savvy but a bit stiff out on the campaign trail. His opponent in the presidential race was a rich, handsome man with a reputation for youthful misbehavior. Polls showed a dead heat. On election night, the TV networks called the race in several key states, only to change their predictions later.
Early the next day, the vice president issued a concession that wasn't quite a concession. His backers grumbled about ballot irregularities and demanded a recount. His party dispatched operatives to disputed states to search for ways to overturn the official tally. Nasty court battles dragged on for weeks.
The vice president was, of course, Richard M. Nixon. The year was 1960.
Now, in the confused aftermath of the Gore-Bush race, pundits keep comparing this year's election to the now-legendary campaign of 1960. They say the 1960 election was stolen for John F. Kennedy by the Chicago Democratic machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the father of William Daley, Al Gore's campaign manager. They say that Nixon was robbed but that--in an uncharacteristically selfless display of statesmanship--he refused to demand a recount because he feared it would tear the country apart.
Actually, the story is more complicated--and much more interesting.
Shifts in Momentum On Election Day 1960, Richard Nixon drove to Mexico for lunch.
He voted in his home town of Whittier, Calif., then climbed into a convertible with a couple of aides and cruised down to Tijuana to eat Mexican food at a restaurant called Old Heidelberg.
Driving back to Los Angeles, Nixon deliberately did not listen to the early returns on the car radio. But when he arrived at his suite in L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel at about 5 o'clock, he turned on the TV. It was 8 p.m. in the East and he was already behind. An hour later--with only 8 percent of the vote in and the polls still open in the West--CBS predicted a Kennedy victory.
"All of the computing machines," explained CBS's Eric Sevareid, "are now saying Kennedy."
"We should put all those electronic computers in the junk pile," Leonard Hall, Nixon's campaign manager, told the press. "This one is going down to the wire."
The networks ignored Hall and listened to their computers. NBC predicted a landslide for Kennedy, but when the race got tighter, the network began backtracking. It called Ohio for Kennedy, then awarded it to Nixon. Later, both NBC and CBS predicted a Kennedy victory in California. That, too, proved wrong: Absentee ballots ultimately swung the state to Nixon.
Before midnight back East, the New York Times went to press with a banner headline: KENNEDY ELECTED PRESIDENT. But Nixon kept gaining and soon the race was too close to call. Times Managing Editor Turner Catledge, fearful that he'd be embarrassed by his headline, began to hope, as he later recalled in his memoirs, that "a certain Midwestern mayor would steal enough votes to pull Kennedy through."
He was referring, of course, to Daley, a pol believed to be so powerful that he could make the dead vote. But as election night dragged on, Nixon took a lead in Illinois.
That news stunned Sargent Shriver, who was the Illinois campaign manager for his brother-in-law Jack Kennedy. Shriver was watching TV at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., when he saw returns that showed Nixon ahead in Illinois.
"I damn near collapsed," he recalls. "I was devastated. I thought that the fact that I had lost my state, Illinois, would mean that Kennedy would lose the presidency."
He sneaked out of the room. "I didn't have the [guts] to face those people," says Shriver, now 85. "I went back to my bedroom and almost cried myself to death."
Suddenly, somebody was rapping on his door, saying "Sarge, the votes in Illinois have changed completely."
Shriver hustled back to the TV room. It was true: A late surge of votes from Chicago had put Kennedy back in the lead in Illinois.
A Roller-Coaster Finish
Across the country, Nixon and his aides were watching the same returns.
"We were getting good reports out of Illinois but we noticed that a lot of precincts in Chicago weren't reporting," says Herb Klein, who was Nixon's press secretary. "Then they reported en masse and we were a little suspicious."
Hall grumbled that the Chicago Democrats were up to their usual tricks.
By midnight--3 o'clock back East--Kennedy had 265 electoral votes, just four short of victory. Nixon wasn't ready to concede, but he thought he should make some kind of statement to his supporters in the ballroom downstairs.
"If the present trend continues," he told them, "Senator Kennedy will be the next president of the United States."
It was, Klein says, "what I call his half-concession."
Watching on TV in Hyannis Port, Kennedy's aides groaned and grumbled.
"Why should he concede?" Kennedy said to them. "I wouldn't."
Nixon went back upstairs to continue watching the returns on TV. Kennedy's lead in the popular vote was melting away, from 800,000 votes to 600,000 to fewer than half a million. Nixon took Washington and Oregon. Illinois was still too close to call. So were California and Minnesota. If Nixon won them all, he'd be president.
When he fell asleep, shortly after 4, Nixon still didn't know if he'd won or lost. When his daughter Julie woke him two hours later, he learned he'd been defeated.
It was one of the closest elections on record. Out of 68 million votes, the difference between the parties was only 113,000. Kennedy ended up taking 303 electoral votes to Nixon's 219 and 15 for segregationist Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia. But Nixon would have won if he'd taken Texas, where he lost by only 46,000 votes, and Illinois, where he lost by fewer than 9,000.
Nixon called President Eisenhower. Ike told him he'd heard rumors of voting fraud in Texas and Illinois and urged him to check it out.
By now it was mid-morning and Nixon had no desire to make another concession speech. Instead, he sent Kennedy a congratulatory telegram and dispatched Klein to read it to the press.
In Hyannis Port, Kennedy watched Klein read the telegram on TV. Kennedy was disgusted, his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, recalled in his memoirs. He thought Nixon should make his own concession.
"He went out," Kennedy said, "the way he came in--no class."
Showing Grace in Defeat
On the plane back to Washington that night, campaign manager Hall buttonholed Nixon to say he thought the Democrats had stolen votes in Illinois, Texas, Missouri and New Mexico. Nixon listened but he didn't seem particularly engaged.
"He didn't react to it at that time," Klein recalls. "He was very tired."
In fact, Nixon was exhausted. He'd been campaigning nonstop for weeks and he'd barely slept in the last three days. He failed to fall asleep on the plane, and when he got home he found he couldn't sleep there, either. He built a fire and sat in front of it, pondering what he ought to do about rumors of election fraud. He decided, he later wrote, that it was important that he appear to be a man who could lose gracefully.
The next day, he packed up his family--and a few trusted aides, including Klein--and flew to Key Biscayne, Fla., for a vacation.
"He'd been beaten," Klein recalls, "and he was very depressed."
Back in Washington, Republicans were hollering about voting fraud. Sen. Everett Dirksen, Illinois' frog-voiced Republican patriarch, claimed that the Daley machine had stolen the election in his state. Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater echoed Dirksen, declaring that Chicago had "the rottenest election machinery in the United States."
Hall and Kentucky Sen. Thruston Morton, head of the Republican National Committee, flew to Key Biscayne to urge Nixon to demand a recount.
"They told him they thought the election had been stolen and he ought to fight it," Klein recalls. "He sort of put them off. He listened and he said he'd think about it."
He didn't think for long. Exhausted and depressed, Nixon had no stomach for a fight he figured he had little chance to win. On Friday, three days after the election, he sent Klein out to read a statement.
"The vice president ran the race and he accepts the decision of the voters," Klein announced. "The decision made on Tuesday stands."
Klein recalls Nixon explaining his reason for the decision: "He thought contesting it would do a great harm to the country."
In his memoir, "Six Crises," written in 1962, when he was planning a political comeback, Nixon said he made the decision because he feared American prestige would be damaged by suggestions that "the presidency itself could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box."
In a later memoir, "RN," written after he'd resigned the presidency in disgrace, Nixon added another reason: "Charges of 'sore loser' would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career."
Riled Up but No Recount
Nixon may have quit, but his campaign manager and the Republican National Committee fought on.
Hall and Morton dispatched teams of GOP operatives to ferret out evidence of election fraud in eight states--Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. Morton himself traveled to Chicago, where he announced the creation of what he called "the National Recount and Fair Elections Committee."
Morton's minions failed to uncover much fraud in most states, but they hit pay dirt in Texas and Illinois.
In Texas, Kennedy's 46,000-vote margin was the closest statewide race there since 1948, when Kennedy's running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, won a Senate seat by 87 votes (the origin of the nickname "Landslide Lyndon"). Morton's operatives, aided by local Republicans, uncovered plenty of political chicanery. For instance: In Fannin County, which had 4,895 registered voters, 6,138 votes were cast, three-quarters of them for Kennedy. In one precinct of Angelia County, 86 people voted and the final tally was 147 for Kennedy, 24 for Nixon.
On and on it went. The Republicans demanded a recount, claiming that it would give them 100,000 votes and victory. John Connally, the state Democratic chairman, said the Republicans were just "haggling for headlines" and predicted that a recount would give Kennedy another 50,000 votes.
But there was no recount. The Texas Election Board, composed entirely of Democrats, had already certified Kennedy as the winner.
In Chicago, where Kennedy won by more than 450,000 votes, local reporters uncovered so many stories of electoral shenanigans--including voting by the dead--that the Chicago Tribune concluded that "the election of November 8 was characterized by such gross and palpable fraud as to justify the conclusion that [Nixon] was deprived of victory."
A new biography, "American Pharaoh," quotes Mayor Daley defending his city by claiming that Democratic fraud in Chicago was no worse than Republican fraud in downstate Illinois:
"You look at some of those downstate counties," he said, "and it's just as fantastic as some of those precincts they're pointing at in Chicago."
Robert Kennedy, his brother's campaign manager, shrugged off the whole controversy: "A tempest in a teapot."
A Republican National Committee member filed suit to challenge the Chicago results. The case was assigned to Circuit Court Judge Thomas Kluczynski, a Daley machine loyalist.
On Dec. 13, Kluczynski dismissed the Republican suit. Less than a year later, on Mayor Daley's recommendation, Kennedy appointed Kluczynski to the federal bench.
Ultimately, a special prosecutor, Morris Wexler, was appointed to investigate the Chicago fraud allegations. Wexler brought charges against 650 election officials but a Democratic judge's pro-defense rulings crippled Wexler's case and the charges were dropped.
Finally, in 1962, after an election judge confessed to witnessing vote tampering in Chicago's 28th ward, three precinct workers pled guilty and served short jail terms.
Calling Off the Dogs
Americans will probably never know for certain if the Democrats stole the election of 1960. But Earl Mazo is pretty sure they did.
"There's no question in my mind that it was stolen," he says. "It was stolen like mad. It was stolen in Chicago and in Texas."
Back in 1960, Mazo, now 81, was the Washington-based national political correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. After the election, he kept getting calls from reporter friends in Chicago who told him wild stories of election fraud there.
"They were in effect chastising me," he recalls, "saying, 'You national reporters, you're missing the story, why don't you come out and look?' "
So Mazo went out and looked. He went to Chicago, obtained lists of voters in precincts that seemed suspicious and started checking their addresses.
"There was a cemetery where the names on the tombstones were registered and voted," he recalls. "I remember a house. It was completely gutted. There was nobody there. But there were 56 votes for Kennedy in that house."
At the urging of Chicago Democrats, Mazo went to Republican areas downstate and looked for fraud there. He found it.
"In downstate Illinois, there was definitely fraud," he says. "The Republicans were having a good time, too. But they didn't have the votes to counterbalance Chicago. There was no purity on either side, except that the Republicans didn't have Daley in their corner--or Lyndon Johnson."
After investigating Illinois, Mazo headed for Texas, where he documented similar electoral shenanigans. With visions of a Pulitzer Prize dancing in his head, Mazo began writing what he and his editors envisioned as a 12-part series on election fraud. By mid-December, he had published four parts and they'd been reprinted in papers across the country, including The Washington Post.
Then Mazo got a call from Nixon. Mazo knew the vice president. He'd interviewed Nixon extensively for a biography he'd published in 1959. Now, Nixon asked Mazo to come to his office in the Capitol.
When Mazo arrived, the two men chatted for a while and then Nixon asked Mazo to stop writing his series. He told Mazo the country couldn't afford a constitutional crisis at the height of the Cold War.
"I thought he was kidding but he was serious," Mazo recalls. "I looked at him and thought, 'He's a goddamn fool.' "
Failing to convince Mazo, Nixon called the reporter's bosses at the Herald Tribune. "He implored them to stop running the damn thing," Mazo recalls.
Apparently, the vice president was convincing. Mazo's editors pulled him off the story.
"Nobody told me why," he says. "I know I was terribly disappointed. I envisioned the Pulitzer Prize, for chrissakes."
Publicly, Nixon was statesmanlike about his defeat, but privately he showed his bitterness. At a party he gave before Christmas that year, he told some guests: "We won but they stole it from us."
Nixon's wife was angry, too, and she knew exactly whom she blamed--the head of the Chicago Board of Elections. "If it weren't for an evil, cigar-smoking man in Chicago, Sidney T. Holzman," she was quoted as saying, "my husband would have been president of the United States."
Even Nixon's 12-year-old daughter Julie was angry. "Not a day was to pass until after Kennedy's inauguration," Nixon wrote in "Six Crises," "but that Julie would ask me: 'Can't we still win? Why can't we have a recount in Chicago?' "
But there was no recount and Kennedy was inaugurated. Not long after that, a still-angry Sen. Dirksen called Cartha DeLoach, who was then assistant director of the FBI. Dirksen demanded that the FBI investigate evidence that the election was stolen.
"I told him that the Department of Justice was investigating this," DeLoach recalls. "I referred him to the attorney general."
At that point, Dirksen asked, sarcastically, "Who's the attorney general?"
"Bobby Kennedy," DeLoach replied.
Dirksen slammed down the phone.