“For the President of the United States is not only the many men listed in the official catalogue of his powers–he is also the nation’s chief educator, the nation’s chief persuader, the nation’s master politician. Where he leads, his party, his instruments, above all his relectant people, must be persuaded to follow.”
Published in 1961, Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 is the seminal work on the 1960 campaign and election season. While White certainly expresses his overwhelming enthusiasm for Kennedy, he does a wonderful job highlighting the internal workings of both campaigns and the changing demographics of American society. This is a rich and extremely well-written work, so I can only highlight a few aspects.
First, reading this work with the hindsight of the 21st century is heartbreaking, especially when White projects into the future with statements like, “unless he does this, so portend the election results of 1960, he will be dramatically vulnerable to Republican counterattack in 1964.”
Second, it is amazing to see how dramatically the demographics of the American electorate have shifted since 1960. White lists the Southern states that went for Kennedy (Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, etc) versus the states that were solidly Nixon (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio). It makes you realize how much has changed both in America and in our two major parties.
In my favorite chapter White describes at length the sea-change in American demographics discovered in the 1960 Census (primarily with the emergence of the suburb and the death of the cities). Just one fun fact is that in 1950 11% of Americans owned a television whereas in 1960 88% owned one. He uses these statistics to highlight how critical the televised debates were to the election. And yes, he discusses those pesky debates!
Finally, I found fascinating his descriptions of the party conventions and how they served as sites of contestation rather than the crownings they now seem to be. I can’t think of a single convention in my voting life where we didn’t already know the name of the heir-apparent. Part of this is decided by the primary system, which was much more limited back then, but it made me long for a convention process that is actually contested, heated, and full of real debate. Heck, maybe I would actually watch them then.
This is a fantastic work to read in light of our recent election and perfect for anyone interested in the Kennedy-Nixon election as well as the continuing drama of American Presidential politics.