1960: The Making of a Myth
Dwight D. Eisenhower was finishing his second term in office as President. He had been highly regarded as a great president and more importantly, a great man. But even still, those on the right wing were not happy with him. They viewed his liberal conservatism as unprincipled or that his policies made him not a real conservative. William F. Buckley Jr, the founder of National Review, was critical of Eisenhower and wrote
It was the dominating ambition of Eisenhower’s Modern Republicanism to govern in such fashion as to more or less please more or less everybody. Such governments must shrink from principle; because principles have edges, principles cut; and blood is drawn, and people get hurt. And who would hurt anyone in an age of modulation?
The idea is that the Eisenhower presidency was unprincipled which may have made Eisenhower a Republican in name only (RINO). Richard Nixon had a falling out with Eisenhower in 1952 that was never fully recovered. Nixon faced a scandal in 1952 when he was accused of having a fund by his backers to help reimburse him for political expenses. The scandal threatened Nixon’s spot on the ticket. He gave a famous political speech known as the Checkers speech that allowed him to stay on the ticket. Eisenhower never fully forgave Nixon.
Despite Nixon’s record on a number of issues, conservatives within the Republican Party was willing to abandon Nixon at the drop of the hat. Liberal Republicans were likewise opportunistic possibly exploring jumping ship to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon was trying to play the delicate balance between conservative and liberal factions of the party.
Nixon was afraid that Rockefeller could steal away the nomination of the party. It is one of the few times in Nixon’s political career where he misread the electorate. Rockefeller held sway with the liberal Republicans but not much else. To put it in today’s terms, Rockefeller represented the nearly mythical moderate Republicans that candidates are supposed to pander to. Nixon fearing his chance at the presidency, slipping away met with Rockefeller to discuss the platform. Nixon thought that he was safe from a more conservative outrage, as conservatives had always liked him.
Nixon caught an emergency flight to Manhattan to hash out the platform in Rockefeller’s Fifth Avenue apartment. This was later known as the Treaty of Fifth Avenue. Part of the treaty included increased defense spending on nuclear weapons; remove segregation in education; and funding for education.
As Rick Perlstein writes in his definitive histories of the rise of the Republican Party in Nixonland, Nixon though that this convention was supposed to be his coronation. He was outraged by the idea that Rockefeller thought that he could dictate to Nixon what the platform should be. Conservatives outraged over this treaty tried to draft conservative Senator Barry Goldwater for the Presidency. The draft movement ultimately failed but Goldwater had nearly the last word. Speaking at the convention, Goldwater challenged the delegations,”let’s grow up conservatives! If we want to take this party back, and I think we an some day, let’s get to work.”
Nixon was surprised that the Conservative members of his party would split on him at the last minute for a potential draft Goldwater movement. The conservative members had long been his champion for his attacks on communists and his appeal as an everyman. But the ground, as you can see, was already shaking beneath him. By 1964, Perlstein writes, “in a poll of Republican leaders, only 3 percent said Nixon would make a good candidate. He was too liberal.”
The 1960 election was one of the closer elections in Presidential history. Kennedy won the popular election by about 100,000 votes. The electoral college had him with 303 electoral votes. Nixon seethed at the results as he always had somewhat of a frenemy relationship with Kennedy.
For the first time that I have been able to find in the modern era, there was widespread accusations of voter fraud. By widespread, we’re primarily looking at Texas and Illinois. This wouldn’t be terribly surprising as the election united three of the most ruthless politicians in the Democratic Party: Kennedy, Richard Daley, and Lyndon Johnson. Nixon’s campaign manager, Leonard Hall, complained as the Chicago votes came in that the “Chicago Democrats were up to their usual tricks.” Ultimately, he lost Illinois by 9,000 votes. He lost Texas by 46,000.
Nixon called Eisenhower and was told that there were rumors of voting fraud in Texas and Illinois. Hall went further telling Nixon that he thought Democrats had stolen votes in Illinois, Texas, Missouri, and New Mexico. Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois complained that the Daley machine had stolen the election. Senator Goldwater said that Chicago had “the rottenest election machinery in the United States.”
Hall and the RNC went to eight different states to try to find fraud and proof that the election had been stolen. In Texas, Johnson was accused of fraud with the natural suspicion being cast in a number of counties where the votes counted outnumbered the number of registered voters. John Connally, the Texas Democratic Governor, stated that there would be no recount and predicted that a recount would net Kennedy 50,000 more votes. But there was no recount.
The other natural place for fraud was Illinois. Daley was known for being ruthless and barely complying within the law (and even if he went outside of it, he had friends in a lot of high places). Daley in a relatively new biography claimed that his fraud was no worse than the fraud in downstate Illinois.
Nixon conceded the race and said that he accepted the results of the election despite some members of his campaign arguing otherwise. Nixon claimed in his memoir Six Crises that 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.” Nixon explained to the members of his team that contesting the results could cause great harm to the country.
These charges of fraud would show up in nearly every election that a Democrat has won since 1960. 1960 had a much better case for electoral fraud than any other election I’ve ever looked at. The claims of fraud that are made, now, by the Republican Party is not about actual cases of fraud but rather the unbelievability that a Democrat could win an election.
In the aftermath of the 1960 election, there wasn’t such a public postmortem of the party as there was after the 2012 election. The common belief from the Republican faithful after the election was that if they ran a true conservative they would have been able to overcome this electoral fraud. They would have won the election had a true conservative actually ran. This was going to set the stage for the next Presidential election. Nixon was too liberal and they needed a true conservative to be able to run and win. Both charges of electoral fraud and the idea of a true conservative were born out of this election. We will return to this election, later.