1960 Election: Handling Defeat with Dignity

The 1960 national election was the closest presidential contest of the 20th century. Although John Kennedy was declared the winner on November 8 by a margin of 0.17% of the popular vote, many observers believed that only electoral fraud had propelled him to the White House.

New York Times political columnist Tom Wicker later wrote “Nobody knows to this day whom the American people really elected president in 1960. Under the prevailing system, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, but it is not at all clear if this was really the will of the people, or, if so, by what means and margin that will was expressed.”

Immediately after the election, Earl Mazo of the New York Herald Tribune conducted his own investigation, centered on Chicago and Texas.

Upon checking Chicago voter registrations, he found, “There was a cemetery where the names on the tombstones were registered and voted. I remember a house. It was completely gutted. There was nobody there. But there were 56 votes for Kennedy in that house.” Mazo also found in Chicago “mountains of sworn affidavits by poll watchers and disgruntled voters” that testified convincingly of Democratic Party  cheating.  Yet Kennedy had carried Illinois by only 8,858 votes out of 4,757,409 – a margin of less than 0.19%.

Mazo then turned his attention to Texas, where he uncovered what he called similar Democratic “electoral shenanigans.”  He found that a minimum of 100,000 Texas votes tallied for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket were “nonexistent” — more than enough to offset the Democrats’ margin of victory of 46,000 votes.  

Mazo began writing what he and his editors planned as a twelve-part series on the election fraud in Chicago and Texas. Within a month, he had published the first four installments. The articles were reprinted in papers across the country, including The Washington Post

Even forty years later, Mazo remained convinced that the Democrats had stolen the election, telling The Washington Post in 2000: “There’s no question in my mind that it was stolen. It was stolen like mad. It was stolen in Chicago and in Texas.”

Nixon was following the story closely and with grave concern. When Nixon arranged for the two men to meet in the first week of December 1960, Nixon told Mazo: “Earl, those are interesting articles you are writing—but no one steals the Presidency of the United States.” Mazo described his reaction: “I thought he was kidding, but he was serious, I looked at him and thought, ‘He’s a goddamn fool.’”

Of course, Nixon knew a challenge would be on strong legal grounds. President Eisenhower was even willing to raise money from his friends to support the effort. But while Nixon’s heart told him to do it, his head said no.

But Mazo soon realized that the vanquished candidate was deadly serious. The two men spoke for over an hour about the campaign and the odd vote patterns in various places. Then, continent by continent, Nixon “enumerated potential international crises that could be dealt with only by the President of a united country, and not a nation torn by the kind of partisan bitterness and chaos that inevitably would result from an official challenge of the election result.” Regardless of his passion and his insight, Nixon could not convince Mazo to drop the story, so he called the reporter’s bosses at the Herald Tribune and implored them to stop running the series. Mazo’s editors pulled him off the story.

Nixon later explained his two fundamental reasons: “One, it would have meant the United States would be without a president for almost a year before the challenges in Illinois and Texas could be taken. I felt that the country couldn’t afford to have a vacuum in leadership for that period. Two, even if we were to win in the end, the cost in world opinion and the effect on democracy in the broadest sense would be detrimental. In my travels abroad, I had been to countries in Latin America, Africa and the Far East that were just starting down the democratic path. To them, the United States was the example of the democratic system. So if in the United States an election was found to be fraudulent, it would mean that every pipsqueak in every one of those countries would be tempted, if he lost the election, to bring a fraud charge and have a coup.”

In mid-December, 1960, President-elect Kennedy flew to Florida to meet with Nixon. Kennedy’s words of greeting were no surprise to Nixon: “Well, it’s hard to tell who won the election at this point.”

Nixon family friend Roger Johnson recognized that Nixon and his family were “very, very disappointed.”  But Johnson also saw that he “handled himself  beautifully” in the aftermath of defeat. Through it all, Nixon put decency before politics. He rejected a recount and did not challenge the outcome.

The election loss was a great blow to Nixon’s mother Hannah. She was stoic, but she couldn’t fully hide her disappointment. Knowing her son would never stand for a recount, she simply stated: “It must be God’s will. We will have to accept it.” Nor did Hannah ever say anything derogatory about President Kennedy or any of his family. “It just wasn’t in her makeup to be that kind of person.”

Accepting his first political defeat in fourteen years, and with so many pundits, supporters, and friends clamoring for Nixon to challenge the outcome, instead he hosted a huge Christmas party in his home on December 16, 1960, for hundreds of friends from the Eisenhower Administration, the media, and the presidential campaign.  

As the sitting vice  president, Nixon did not want to do anything  to block Kennedy’s limelight as he prepared to take office. Invited to the Annual Service of Intercession and Holy Communion on January 3, 1961, at the National Presbyterian Church, Minister Edward Elson offered to reserve Nixon’s “usual pew.” Nixon initially responded “No, this should be Kennedy and Johnson’s show,” although ultimately, he relented and attended, showing public support for Kennedy and Johnson, also in attendance.

Just three days later, Nixon addressed a Joint Session of Congress as vice president. He had the nearly unprecedented duty where, for the first time in a hundred years a candidate for the presidency presided over the electoral count to make official his opponent’s victory.*

Nixon told the joint assembly: “I do not think we could have a more striking and eloquent example of the stability of our Constitutional system and of the proud tradition of the American people of developing, respecting and honoring institutions of self-government. In our campaigns, no matter how hard-fought they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict, and support those who win.”

Nixon then stated that, having served in government fourteen years, a period which began in the House, continued in the Senate and then as Vice President, “it is indeed a very great honor for me to extend to my colleagues in the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle who have been elected, to extend to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who have been elected President and Vice President of the United States, my heartfelt best wishes, and to extend to you those best wishes as all of you work in a cause that is bigger than any man’s ambition, greater than any Party. It is the cause of freedom, of justice, and peace for all mankind.”

Nixon had class. He put country above party and, even more, above self. Quite a lesson for all time, indeed!

* The presidential election of 1860.  Southern Democratic Party nominee John C. Breckinridge presided over the Joint Session of Congress as vice president to certify that his opponent had won the election.

Paul Carter is the author of the groundbreaking Richard Nixon: California’s Native Son, released 9/1/23 from Potomac Books and available here.