Campaign of the Century: Kennedy, Nixon and the Election of 1960
By Irwin F. Gellman
(Yale University Press, 504 pages, $35)
I was but 14 in 1960, but do have a very personal memory of the Kennedy/Nixon campaign. We had recently moved to Long Beach, California, where I was a junior at Woodrow Wilson High School. Long Beach was nicknamed “Iowa by the Sea” because hundreds of Iowa families seeking Southern California’s sunshine had settled in or near this coastal city. Begun in 1900, the annual Iowa Picnic was the largest social event of the year, attracting tens of thousands of Iowans, as well as coverage from Los Angeles newspapers. Peak attendance occurred in 1932, when 125,000 people joined in the conviviality.
The picnic was again being held in Recreation Park, right across the street from Wilson High, and Vice President Richard Nixon was going to speak. My social studies teacher, Mr. O’Brian, had given me the special assignment of attending the event and writing a paper on Nixon’s remarks. I remember being somewhat resentful, since I alone got the assignment and the picnic was being held on a Saturday, which would not only interfere with my weekend but also require me to walk to school, since buses wouldn’t be running.
Nixon was already speaking when I got there, so I sort of hung around the fringes of the crowd, hardly able to see him at all. I needed to catch the essence of his remarks, the litany of campaign promises from his stump speech, which would “prove” my attendance. But it was not to be. All Nixon was doing was describing his family’s Midwestern roots and the multitude of cousins somehow connected with Iowa. I’m sure his audience loved it, but I left after about 15 minutes to go socialize with my friends. I ended up sourcing my social studies paper from the Sunday news coverage in the Long Beach Press Telegram. My teacher never knew.
Gellman’s book opens with a detailed debunking of Teddy White’s Making of the President 1960 (1961), the one-sided retelling that deliberately set out to idolize Kennedy and villainize Nixon.
My family voted Republican, but they were not politically active. They may have watched one or more of the historic Kennedy/Nixon debates, but I have no memory of having done so. Nixon’s loss to Jack Kennedy was nothing I took personally.
Two years later, my interest things political changed dramatically. I had chosen to go to nearby Whittier College, Nixon’s alma mater, graduating in 1966, after first winning the Richard Nixon Political Science scholarship — presented in person by the former vice president. From there, it was off to Harvard Law School, with Nixon winning the 1968 election while I was in my second year. Upon graduating in 1969, I received a White House Fellowship and then spent five years on Nixon’s White House staff as a member of his Domestic Council. Since then, I’ve written three books and dozens of essays and produced some three dozen documentaries regarding his public policy initiatives. I consider myself an authority on Richard Nixon, but only for the period beginning with his 1968 election.
It is with that background that I eagerly awaited publication of Campaign of the Century, distinguished historian Irwin Gellman’s third book on Nixon. (Full disclosure: The circle of Nixon authors is relatively small, and I’ve known and respected Irv Gellman for many years, even once helping his late wife to resolve a traffic citation. At times, I’ve even been jealous of the depth and quality of his research.) I wanted explicit detail and well-documented descriptions of key events, and Irv certainly didn’t disappoint. It was almost as though I were there, every step of the way — with vivid descriptions of events, campaign triumphs and disappointments, and the background of critical decisions, all presented in a balanced and objective retelling.
This is what most Americans want from historians: balanced and unbiased retellings of historic events, put in their proper context. As Joe Friday would say on Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am” — not some work by a biased spin doctor, urging their beliefs of how readers should view past events.
Gellman’s book opens with a detailed debunking of Teddy White’s Making of the President 1960 (1961), the one-sided retelling that deliberately set out to idolize Kennedy and villainize Nixon. This was made easier, of course, since Nixon conceded the election and had refused to grant the communist-sympathizing White any interview at all. White’s book became a dominant best-seller, selling over four million copies to date. Gellman documents White’s hugely biased descriptions.
He also takes a close look at the many allegations that Nixon’s victories in Illinois and Texas, which would have put him over the top in the Electoral College, were corruptly voided by Chicago’s Mayor Daley and Texas Democrats. It’s fascinating, but I will leave his conclusions regarding the real outcome of that election for readers to learn for themselves.
Gellman is renowned for his thoroughly documented research. His book closes with 125 pages of notes and biography citations. It is little wonder Yale University Press agreed to publish this work. It is a fascinating rendition, and I recommend it highly. It is as objective a retelling as we are ever likely to get.
Geoff Shepard’s latest book is The Nixon Conspiracy: The Plot to Remove the President (2021). Learn more on his website, at www.ShepardOnWatergate.com.