Before we had Bush versus Gore, there was Kennedy versus Nixon.
The 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon featured much of the same drama that enveloped the country in 2000: two recognizable candidates engaged in a memorable, evenly matched campaign that ended with rumors of voter fraud and ill will among both the Democratic and Republican establishments. Throw in issues of race, religion and the new influence of television, and JFK’s narrow victory sure wasn’t short on intrigue.
That election also spawned one of the most famous political books of all time: Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1960,” a firsthand account of the Kennedy campaign that to this day helps define politics in that era.
In his new book, “Kennedy v. Nixon: The Presidential Election of 1960,” Edmund F. Kallina Jr. attempts to look beyond White’s work and offer a different account of the election — an account that claims to be more honest and unbiased than the one provided by White, a close friend of Kennedy. But the result is a collection of meandering anecdotes and an overwhelming amount of superficial information that leave readers begging for “The Making of the President 1960.”
In his introduction, Kallina writes that “Because 1960 was an epic year for American politics, it deserves a detailed reconsideration that is free of Theodore White’s hero worship.” The author goes on to say that his version of events evaluates Nixon’s campaign more positively than most historians do, and he promises a fair judgment of the Kennedy machine.
Kallina falls short on both accounts. Nixon comes off as a paranoid, stubborn, intelligent and rigidly principled man — in other words, Kallina reinforces all the stereotypes about Nixon. And while the author does critique some Kennedy campaign strategies, JFK is generally described as “cool, calm, confident and relaxed.” It isn’t hero worship, but the image of Kennedy as a handsome young candidate is the overarching theme of Kallina’s text.
Kallina’s evaluation of the four televised debates between the two candidates in the fall of 1960 is telling of the book’s superficiality. The accepted truth is that Kennedy swung the election with his poise and good looks on national television, and Kallina mostly concurs. In his words, “If the major motivation of the debates for Nixon was the opportunity to speak directly to millions of Democrats and independents and present himself as a serious, reasonable candidate … he accomplished that objective. Unfortunately for him, Kennedy’s performance was so scintillating that it tended to eclipse everything else.”
That may be true, but Kallina offers nothing to back up his assertion.
Kallina’s problem in “Kennedy v. Nixon” isn’t bias or superficiality. Instead, the book’s central failure is its lack of originality. The book is 215 pages, and its appendix includes an astounding 60 pages of citations. Those 60 pages represent Kallina’s exhaustive research, and for that effort he deserves to be commended. But the stories he pulls from his research are recycled material, and they provide little new insight into the inner workings of the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns.
To Kallina’s credit, he does use interesting, often funny quotations from the candidates and their staffs to inject some color into his history. He also provides a thorough explanation of the relationship between Vice President Nixon and President Dwight Eisenhower, a hot-and-cold partnership that almost defined the election. The author does well to devote plenty of space to the Nixon campaign when he easily could have focused on the more dynamic Kennedy and his brother, Robert. But given the sheer amount of information in “Kennedy v. Nixon,” it’s difficult to pick out what’s relevant and what isn’t.
All told, Kallina has undertaken something ambitious: find something new to say about an event that happened 50 years ago, and do it better than White, who was actually there at the time.
From the result, it is clear firsthand knowledge trumps archival research, and Kallina’s reinterpretation of the 1960 presidential election does little to change the perception of that crucial episode in American history.