On this day in 1960, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts is nominated for the presidency by the Democratic Party Convention, defeating among others fellow Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. The next day, Johnson was named Kennedy’s running mate by a unanimous vote of the convention. 40 months later, the 46-year-old President was murdered in broad daylight while riding in a motorcade in downtown Dallas, Texas, seated next to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
The 1960 Democratic National Convention was held in Los Angeles, California, and the major candidates for the nomination were Kennedy, Governor Pat Brown of California, Senator Stuart Symington from Missouri, Senator Wayne Morse from Oregon, and Senator Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota. Several other candidates sought support in their home state or region as “favorite son” candidates without any realistic chance of winning the nomination.
In the week before the convention opened, Kennedy received two new challengers when Johnson, the powerful Senate Majority Leader, and Adlai Stevenson, the party’s nominee in 1952 and 1956, officially announced their candidacies; both had been privately working for the nomination for some time. However, neither Johnson nor Stevenson was a match for the talented and highly efficient Kennedy campaign team led by Robert F. Kennedy.
Johnson challenged Kennedy to a televised debate before a joint meeting of the Texas and Massachusetts delegations, to which Kennedy accepted. Most observers believed that Kennedy won the debate, and Johnson was unable to expand his delegate map beyond the South.
Stevenson’s failure to launch his candidacy publicly until the week of the convention meant that many liberal delegates who might have supported him were already pledged to Kennedy, and Stevenson–despite the energetic support of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt–could not break their allegiance. Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot.
Then, in a move that surprised many, Kennedy asked Johnson to be his running mate. He realized that he could not be elected without the support of traditional Southern Democrats, most of whom had backed Johnson. An alternative theory persists that Kennedy was essentially blackmailed to name Johnson with an assist from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but evidence here is scant. Regardless, he offered Johnson the vice presidential nomination at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel at 10:15 a.m. on July 14, the morning after being nominated for president.
The post-convention campaign against GOP nominee Vice-President Nixon was hard fought and bitter for all to see and for the first time, presidential candidates engaged in televised debates. Many observers believed that Kennedy’s poised and charming performances during four debates made the difference in the final vote. Issues, however, also played a role in the election, and the nation’s foreign policy was a major bone of contention between Kennedy and Nixon.
Nixon took every opportunity to characterize Kennedy as too young and inexperienced to handle the awesome responsibilities of America’s Cold War diplomacy, though Nixon was only 48 months older. He defended the past eight years of Republican rule, failing to see that the peace, prosperity and optimism of the Eisenhower era were personal attributes to Ike alone. Kennedy further presaged future tactics by nimbly running to the right of the GOP on foreign policy in arguments for a “flexible response,” then tacking to the center in office.
That November 8th, in the national popular vote, Kennedy beat Nixon by less than two tenths of one percentage point (0.17%), the closest popular-vote margin of the 20th century. In the Electoral College, Kennedy’s victory was larger, as he took 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219. Howls of foul-play arose, and those from this humble scribe’s Indiana Republican father persisted until death; whatever the theories, from Cook County clones to votes from cemeteries, Nixon conceded the following morning.
Kennedy claimed during the campaign that he looked forward to meeting the challenges facing the strongest nation in the Free World; he did not have long to wait before those challenges were upon him. Off to fits and starts after inauguration, Kennedy came to preside over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Peace Corps, the Civil Rights Movement, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, stupendous growth at NASA, nuanced economic policy and a host of other New Frontier innovations setting the stage for a stellar second term in office which tragically never came.
Kennedy continues to rank highly in historians’ polls of US presidents and with the general public. His average approval rating of 70% is the highest of any president in Gallup’s history of systematically measuring job approval, and all the forgoing might have been an esoteric footnote had Nixon been willing to take a shave and sport a tan before the first debate.