Race for the White House. CNN. Sunday, March 6, 10 p.m.
Sick of the petty, scurrilous venality of the 2016 presidential race and its all-but-certain-to-be-catastrophic outcome? Take a trip back to 1960 with CNN's new documentary series Race for the White House for a respite that will dash away any nostalgic nonsense in your head about how politics, once upon a time, were noble, civic exercises.
Scabrous name-calling! Empty-headed sloganeering! Religious bigotry! Vile dirty tricks! Zombie voters! If there's a crooked or sleazy element of American politics that the race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon didn't have, I can't imagine what it would be.
Race for the White House will explore a different election each week, going back as far as the Lincoln-Douglas race of 1860. (Plus side: No Facebook memes or reality-TV stars. Minus: It ended in a war that killed three-quarters of a million people.) But CNN couldn't have chosen more wisely for an opening episode than the Nixon-Kennedy election, which for millions of Americans too young to remember it has been mostly defined by what happened later: the martyrdom in Dallas and the odiferous cloud of Watergate.
As White House shows, though, the story is more complex than that, especially with respect to Kennedy. Though young and glamorous—especially with his gorgeous wife Jackie on his arm ("they were the Beatles before the Beatles," as one political scientist notes) —Kennedy was also callow, more a carefully constructed image than an actual U.S. senator. His massive TV advertising campaign was built around catchy but meaningless jingles rather than issues.
He was also unencumbered by excessive devotion to ethics. Kennedy's main opponent for the Democratic nomination was Minnesota's Sen. Hubert Humphrey, as yet untainted by association with the Vietnam war and widely considered the brightest light in American liberalism, a veteran of many bruising fights with the party's powerful Southern segregationist wing.
Kennedy aides kneecapped Humphrey in the crucial Wisconsin primary by mailing out anonymous leaflets denouncing the Catholicism of their own man, then letting Humphrey take the blame. The huge backlash from Catholic voters obliterated the Minnesotan and he never recovered.
Kennedy rolled over the last obstacle—questions about his health from a last-minute candidate, Lyndon Johnson—by lying through his dazzling teeth, denying that he had what he referred to as "so-called Addison's disease," as if it were a hypochondriac delusion. In fact, Kennedy had several times been pulled back from death's door at the hands of Addison's, an endocrine disorder that causes fever, weight loss, anxiety and violent mood swings, and survived it only with a massive daily cocktail of drugs that included steroids. "Had the American public known just how sick Kennedy was, he probably could not have been a presidential candidate," says his biographer Evan Thomas.
But in Nixon, Kennedy faced a candidate with serious problems of his own, principally his weird introversion. Told he needed to spend more time grooming reporters, who loved Kennedy, Nixon went down to a hotel swimming pool where a press cocktail party was underway, waved, swam a few laps, and returned to his room without speaking a word to anybody.
White House also debunks some myths about Nixon, particularly concerning his supposedly stiletto-sharp political instincts, which had served him well in the past (he survived a campaign-funding scandal that threatened his 1952 vice-presidential candidacy only by delivering a maudlin speech about his daughters' dog Checkers) but mysteriously went missing in 1960.
His most notable lapse came at his first televised debate with Kennedy, which was a disaster. Nixon, unaccountably convinced that Kennedy was a poor TV performer, did little preparation and even made a series of regular campaign appearances on the day of the debate, banging an already-injured knee in the process.
He arrived at the debate exhausted, unshaven and in serious pain, then managed to compound his problems by declining an offer for help from a TV makeup artist. (Kennedy also declined—then promptly went to his room for a touch-up by his personal crew.) The visual contrast between the sweaty, pallid Nixon and the tanned, rested Kennedy was lethal. "Nixon looks like a suspect in a statutory rape case," cracked Washington columnist Joe Alsop. As White House reports, voters who watched the debate on TV declared Kennedy the winner, while the (much smaller) radio audience believed Nixon won.
Coupling a wealth of fascinating archival footage with interviews with historians, political scientists, and even a handful of surviving aides of the two candidates, White House is a snappy piece of story-telling that makes good viewing even for political junkies who know the tale well.
If it has a flaw, it's that there's relatively little attention paid to the ideological flashpoints between the two men. Perhaps that's because there were so few; they were both militant Cold Warriors more interested in foreign policy than domestic affairs. (Insert smirky Kennedy punchline of your choice here.) Their arguments were mostly about whether Cuba should be invaded tomorrow, or a year ago.
In any event, the show's minor blemishes fade quickly in the face of its moments of stark political candor. The descriptions of Chicago's "cemetery wards," where dead voters rose from their graves in massive numbers that pushed Illinois into Kennedy's electoral-vote column and decided the election, are comic—until you consider the consequences. "Kennedy was better at dirty tricks than Nixon, and Nixon knew it," says Thomas. "It planted a seed with Nixon that he never forgot."