News & Politics

Like Gore, Nixon Wanted Recounts in 1960

Republicans today say Al Gore should learn a lesson from Nixon, who lost an achingly close election in 1960 but stepped aside gracefully and didn't challenge the vote. But this rhetoric is based on a lie: Republicans did indeed mount a massive and prolonged challenged to the 1960 election results.
Nixon lost an achingly close election in 1960, but he did the right thing, and put the national interest above his own, ruling out any challenge to the results. That's the story we've been hearing over and over again since Election Day.

Only it isn't true. That's what David Greenberg discovered. Greenberg is a Whiting Fellow at Columbia University who is writing a book about Nixon's place in American culture. There was a vigorous Republican challenge to the election results, Greenberg found. It was a massive and prolonged effort compared to the rather limited effort in a single state that we've seen so far in 2000.

The real history stands all the recent comparisons between Gore and Nixon on their heads. Greenberg wrote a commentary piece in the L.A. Times that's gained some attention, but the old myth is still alive and kicking Florida voters in the teeth. So, once again, it's timely and important to uncover the truth about Richard Nixon.

Q: The conventional wisdom has it that in 1960 Nixon did "the honorable thing" and accepted defeat rather than plunge the country's faith in its institutions into doubt. But your research shows that the Republicans launched a vigorous attempt to challenge the election, when a single word from Nixon could have stopped them in their tracks. There are three questions that can help give people a feeling for the overall shape of this story: How quickly did that challenge start? How long did it last? How serious did it become? I'd like you to say a few a words in answer to each of these questions. First, how quickly did that challenge start?

David Greenberg: The challenge began almost immediately. Even before the election, it was clear that it was going to be a very close race. When it began to look like a Kennedy victory, the Republicans were reluctant to concede defeat. In fact in some states, including California, Nixon refused to concede and for good reason, as it turned out. California didn't end up tallying its results until at least 10 days after the election and when it did, the absentee ballots tipped it from Kennedy to Nixon.

There were other states though, were it was clear that absentee ballots weren't going to make a critical difference. But Thurston Morton, who was a senator from Kentucky and chair of the Republican National Committee, tried to encourage local party chairmen and activists to mount recounts.

In some cases Republican leaders had the government mount investigations into fraud. But at the end of the day none of this panned out -- at least not enough to alter the outcome.

Q: How long did it last?

DG: Well into December and certainly up until the time that the Electoral College met. New Jersey stopped its recount on December 1 or 2. Hawaii didn't name its electors until after the Electoral College met on the 19th of December. In other words, in Hawaii's case, the recount extended past the date the Electoral College met. Ironically, Hawaii went the opposite way -- from Nixon to Kennedy. Pierre Salinger, who was Kennedy's press secretary, is quoted in the New York Times on December 30, pointing out that Republicans asked for all these recounts and didn't win anything as a result, while the Democrats asked for just one recount and won it.

Q: How serious did it become?

DG: It depends what you mean. It was never serious in that it never reached a point where everyone thought the Election result was going to change. But it was serious in that top-level Republicans were involved, and the matter dragged on for weeks. As late as November 23rd there was a prediction that Illinois was going to switch. There was a big article in the New York Times, with a front page headline, "GOP SAYS NIXON MAY WIN ILLINOIS," by no less than Tom Wicker. Well into November some Republicans were still talking about switching Illinois. That's not insignificant.

Of course, most of them probably didn't really think they could win. But they did think they could taint Kennedy's victory and deprive him of the so-called mandate, which they felt was necessary in order to govern successfully. They could also get their own rank and file exercised about this and have a great issue to run on in 1962 and 1964.

For example, Walter Judd, who was a prominent Republican Congressman from Minnesota, gave a speech at a meeting of the Republican National Women's Club in which he said that in Illinois and Texas the Democrats had stolen the election. It's a good example of how some Republican leaders were using it for the future.

Q: How many states were involved altogether? And were there any recounts?

DG: Morton called for recounts in 11 states. I don't know yet how many actually had them. I do know that New Jersey began a series of recounts in some counties. A few days into the recounts they found that they were turning up only a negligible difference from the original count, so the Republicans decided to quit.

In Texas the Republicans went before a Federal judge, who basically said "no dice, there's no civil rights question here." Because of that, he said it was out of his jurisdiction.

They also wanted to do recounts in Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. But I'm not sure if there were any in those states. This is a topic that has been neglected by historians -- after all, only now is it suddenly of interest to everyone -- and I've only uncovered a part of the whole story. I'm interested to know more.

What's interesting to me today is the notion now that we must wrap up this recount so fast. But in 1960 things went much more slowly with no apparent sense of alarm. On November 26, 1960, for example, the New York Times ran an editorial warning that if the Republican charges were true, the nation would be facing the most serious crisis since the Hayes-Tilden election. But the editorial tone was quite different from those you read today. They didn't come down one way or another, saying who was right. It was more just an expression of concern and a plea to get this resolved by the time the Electoral College meets. It was striking to me that it was so long after Election Day and there was still a cloud hanging over the election and a Republican attempt to keep the conflict alive.

Q: You mentioned Pennsylvania was on their list, even though Kennedy's margin was better than 130,000 votes. Any idea why they included it?

DG: Senator Henry Jackson accused the Republicans of trying to begin a fishing expedition. It seems that they were trying to generate uncertainty and concern, and maybe if they'd find some improprieties in a state like Pennsylvania, it would just strengthen their case that Kennedy WAS not legitimate as President. That's the only inference I can draw in this case.

Some of these other states were quite close, though. Ted Sorensen wrote in Washington Post today that there were 18 states decided by less than 2 percent of the vote, which is close but what we're talking about in Florida is more like 0 percent. This is much closer and needs to scrutinized much more closely.

Q: In your LA Times piece you said Nixon was not at the forefront of organizing the challenge. But he could have stopped it, right?

DG: I think that's true.

Q: I mean that's what the media is asking Gore to do now?

DG: Exactly. They are saying Gore should do what Nixon did. But the analogy doesn't hold up -- it's an instrumentalist use of history, a use of history for narrow and current political ends. And today it is not clear that Gore could stop the voters of Palm Beach from going forward with their suits even if he wanted to.

I think it's fair to suppose that if Nixon had called in Senator Thurston Morton of Kentucky, who was the chair of the (Republican National Committee) and told him to stop and he really wanted to play the statesman, Morton would have called it off. Nixon was the most powerful man in the party short of Eisenhower, so he probably could have stopped it.

Q: You write that Eisenhower quickly soured on the idea of mounting a challenge, but that Nixon claimed to be calling for restraint. Tell us more about this.

DG: There have been a number of people who've written about this, but the one I've relied on for the Eisenhower role is Ralph de Toledano, a conservative journalist who wrote for Newsweek and then for National Review.

He wrote a biography of Nixon, One Man Alone, which he updated in 1969. In the updated version he said that Eisenhower's about face wasn't widely known until after his death. Apparently Attorney General Bill Rogers also didn't want the challenge to go forward. So with Eisenhower and Rogers against it was difficult for Nixon to go ahead in public. Toledano later said that it was "The first time I ever caught Nixon in a lie."

Q: There's been a lot of media talk about a "constitutional crisis," something they never bother to define. But in 1960, there really was the possibility of a constitutional crisis due to Southern efforts to block Kennedy's election. Tell us about this side of the story.

DG: There were a lot of Southern Democrats who were steadfastly opposed to Kennedy taking the White House. Ross Barnett, the segregationist Governor of Mississippi, talked about getting these electors who were not faithful to Kennedy to join together in an effort to deprive Kennedy of the White House. This was also advocated by two daily papers published by the Mobile Press-Register, so both in Alabama and Mississippi you had this groundswell against Kennedy because of opposition to Civil Rights for blacks.

In the end, the effort failed, because most Southern electors didn't go along, but there was serious talk about organizing them to vote for Senator Byrd instead. In the end Byrd got roughly half of the Alabama electors and all of Mississippi's. But for several weeks there were all sorts of ideas bandied about that maybe if you overturned Illinois and could unify all the Southern segregationist electors you might keep Kennedy out of the White House.

Q: I recall that Nixon was once asked if he thought that history would be kind to him and he replied that it would because he intended to write it.

DG: There's another thing Nixon said, I'm just paraphrasing here, history may not repeat himself but historians tend to repeat each other. That's generally a legitimate, even a necessary practice, but it can lead to error. And error can be very difficult to correct.

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