The election of 1960, pitting Nixon against John F. Kennedy, was the closest contest of the 20th century. Nixon won 49.6 percent of the popular vote; the Democrat edged him out with 49.7 percent. In his definitive history “The Making of the President 1960,” Theodore H. White wrote: “If only 4,500 voters in Illinois and 28,000 voters in Texas changed their minds … those 32,500 votes would have made Richard M. Nixon President of the United States.”
As soon as the results were announced, Republicans began to issue charges of fraud and ballot-box stuffing. They focused on Texas, where Kennedy’s running mate Lyndon B. Johnson had a history of electoral chicanery, and Cook County, Ill., where Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine routinely manipulated the vote in Democrats’ favor.
Although Illinois had gone Republican in recent presidential elections, Kennedy carried the state and its crucial 27 electoral votes in 1960 by one-tenth of one percent. The victory was propelled by a huge Democratic margin in Cook County, where many precincts waited to report their vote totals until after the heavily Republican counties downstate had issued final tallies.
Unlike Trump, the Republicans in 1960 presented solid evidence that the reported count was wrong. Over Daley’s strenuous objections, a special prosecutor, Morris J. Wexler, was appointed to review the election results in Cook County. The special prosecutor brought criminal fraud charges against hundreds of Democratic election workers and estimated that the Democrats had stolen roughly 10,000 votes there, more than Kennedy’s statewide margin. In Texas, Republicans cited precincts where the Kennedy-Johnson vote total was 25 percent higher than the number of registered voters.
National Republican leaders strongly urged Nixon to fight the results in both states. The vice president recalled later that he was sorely tempted. “There was no question that there was real substance to many of these [fraud] charges,” Nixon wrote in his memoir “Six Crises,” published in 1962. In private Nixon fumed, telling friends at a Christmas party that year “we won, but they stole it from us.”
Yet unlike the current president, in public Nixon quickly accepted the reported result. By noon on the day after the election, both Nixon and President Dwight D. Eisenhower had graciously congratulated Kennedy on his victory. In “Six Crises,” Nixon explained his decision not to fight: “The bitterness that would be engendered by such a maneuver on my part would … have done incalculable and lasting damage throughout the country. … I could think of no worse example for nations abroad … than that of the United States wrangling over the results of our presidential election, and even suggesting that the presidency itself could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box.”
But Nixon also had personal considerations for his decision to man up and concede his loss. If he had waged a legal battle against the reported results, Nixon wrote, “Charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.”
In retrospect, that seems to have been a wise choice. Eight years later, Nixon won his party’s primary again, and went on to an easy victory in the general election. During that 1968 campaign, he offered himself as a “New Nixon,” as a unifier who no longer deserved the combative partisan image that had hurt him in the past.
In contrast, Trump’s continuing battle against this year’s election results seems to be creating precisely the bitterness and the bad global example that Nixon worried about in November 1960. Unless he changes course and follows the Nixon precedent, Trump is likely to take on a label of “sore loser” that will follow him, as Nixon warned, and remove any possibility of a further political career.
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