Echoes Of 1960

Jack Kennedy and Dick Nixon
AP
In the weeks leading up to the 2000 election, political pundits and other self-important know-it-alls kept telling us that this year's presidential contest was reminiscent of the one in 1960.

What they generally had in mind was the extraordinary closeness of that '60 race in which John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by the slimmest of margins – just one/tenth of one percent in the popular vote.

But with all the advance ballyhoo preceding Tuesday night's melodrama, I don't recall anyone predicting that the battle between Al Gore and George W. Bush would become the first national election in 40 years to have its integrity attacked. Not since 1960 has there been such an outcry of charges that the outcome had been influenced by voter irregularities.

Of all the absurdities in the most bizarre election night in American history, nothing was more exquisitely ironic than the sight of Gore's campaign chairman, William Daley, announcing to the press that the vice president had withdrawn his concession and planned to press on with his candidacy.

At that pre-dawn briefing in Nashville, Daley came across as a model of earnest rectitude as he subtly implied that Gore was the victim of balloting in Florida that was not entirely on the straight and narrow.

No one would have been more amused by that picture than Daley's late father – Richard J. – who, as the longtime mayor of Chicago, was the boss of one of the most efficient and ruthless political machines ever assembled.

Boss Daley was at the height of his considerable power in 1960 when Kennedy won his perilously thin victory. One of the major states he carried was Illinois but by a margin of fewer than 9,000 votes.

In the aftermath of that down-to-the-wire election, there were angry Republican charges that Daley's Democratic machine had padded the ballots in precincts they controlled to make sure that Kennedy piled up enough votes in Chicago and other parts of Cook County to carry Illinois.

Comparable accusations were leveled against Democratic officials in Texas – where the party apparatus was largely controlled by Kennedy's running mate, Lyndon Johnson – and that was another critical state that JFK carried by a slim margin.

If those two states had been won by Nixon, he and not Kennedy would have had the majority of electoral votes needed to capture the presidency.

The allegations of voter fraud were never proved in either Illinois or Texas, but the suspicions were strong enough to have a lingering effect. And to this day, an aura of corruption hovers over the 1960 election.

Now we are faced with the distressing prospect that the 2000 presidential contest will be remembered in a similar way.

It would not be appropriate at this point to pass judgment on the sundry charges of voter irregularities that allegedly occurred in Florida on Election Day. But regardless of how the recount turns out – whether it ratifies Bush's apparent victory theror shifts the state into Gore's column – the accusations of improprieties at the voting sites should not be lightly dismissed.

Too much is at stake. The candidate who ultimately secures Florida's 25 electoral votes automatically becomes our next president. But if that result is perceived as tainted, that could well undermine the legitimacy of the election and cast an enduring shadow over the winner's reign in the White House.

It's clear that both the Bush and Gore camps understand the gravity of the situation. That's why each candidate has sent a trusted colleague of impeccable credentials to supervise the recount process. Gore's envoy is Warren Christopher while Bush is being represented by James Baker, and it is perhaps no coincidence that both men happen to be former secretaries of State.

Still, I think an even better choice would have been former President Jimmy Carter, who has had experience monitoring the integrity of elections in other Central American countries.

Back in 1960, more than a few outraged Republicans urged Nixon to challenge the results in Illinois and Texas, even if that meant putting the election on hold for several weeks – or even months.

But Nixon refused to pursue the matter, saying at the time that he did not want to be responsible for delaying the transition of power from one administration to the next.

That was true, but only as far as it went. In an interview some years later, Nixon told a reporter he had given very serious thought to taking legal action that, if successful, would have reversed the results in the two contested states – and made him the president-elect.

He said the main reason he decided against that course was because Kennedy had won the popular vote. And even though JFK's margin of victory was extremely slender (barely more than 100,000 votes) it was a clear plurality, and Nixon said he had no stomach for a fight that would pit him against the will of the people – even if it did lead him to an electoral triumph.

I wish Nixon were still with us because I cannot help but wonder what kind of advice the savvy old pro would give to Al Gore who, like Kennedy in '60, has edged his Republican opponent in the popular vote, and therefore can claim to have, on his side, the will of the American people.

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