By David Kurlander

Far from conceding the election, President Donald Trump is demanding recounts and accusing Democrats of fraud as his road to 270 electoral votes seemingly narrows. Trump has taken an approach that Richard Nixon, then the Republican presidential nominee, briefly considered before ultimately conceding to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election. Over the six decades since Nixon’s choice, historians have fiercely debated his motivations in abandoning the tensely contested race, which was roiled by accusations of Kennedy-orchestrated fraud in Illinois and Texas. The shifting narrative over Nixon’s concession offer poignant context on the complicated morality of presidential defeat…

In the early morning hours of November 9th, 1960, Nixon—still serving as Eisenhower’s Vice President—took the podium at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to announce the conditional end of his public campaign against the dynamic Senator from Massachusetts. “If the current trend continues,” Nixon told an increasingly frustrated crowd, “Senator Kennedy will be the next president of the United States.” After getting some sleep, Nixon that same afternoon sent Kennedy a telegram formally conceding the contest. The election, punctuated by controversy over Kennedy’s Catholicism, strategic arguments over how aggressively to enforce racial integration, and the now-iconic, decidedly sweaty, pioneering televisual debates, had come to an end. 

The race was the tightest electoral vote—at 303-219—since Woodrow Wilson narrowly bested Charles Evans Hughes in 1916. The battleground states were closer still, with Illinois decided for Kennedy by under 9,000 votes and Texas by 45,000. Nixon had relatively convincing intel that Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s father, had leaned on all-powerful Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to swing votes. He had equally compelling rumors that Kennedy’s Vice Presidential running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, had used his clout in Texas to throw out a huge number of Republican ballots. 

Nixon offered two retellings of his thought process as he grappled with the fraud allegations and his option to challenge the results. His first reflections appeared in his 1962 Six Crises, published amid his unsuccessful run for California Governor in 1962. In the book, Nixon recounted the guiding question for him as he thought over Kennedy’s likely win: “How could I best use this opportunity to get those who had voted for me to stand with him—wherever and whenever he would speak in the future as President of all the people and not just as the leader of his party?” Nixon also thought of 1948 Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, who the press inaccurately predicted had won the election over Harry Truman and who still gave a gracious concession speech following the confusion. 

Nixon doubled down on the national unity narrative in his 1978 memoir, RN, suggesting that he had considered forcing a recount, but had ultimately decided that the associated rancor—which he estimated could eat up at least six months of the new Kennedy administration—would be “devastating to America’s standing in the world.” Nixon, only 47 in 1960, also acknowledged that an unsuccessful recount would fatally harm his reputation. “Charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.” 

Nixon’s accounting of his concession decision—self-protective but focused on the health of the nation—stood largely unchallenged until the new millennium. When Al Gore and George Bush plunged into electoral purgatory over the Florida recount in 2000, remembrances of Nixon’s graciousness loomed large in editorials advocating for Gore to concede. Presidential historian David Greenberg—who was in the midst of writing a book on Nixon’s self-mythology—took to the Los Angeles Times to offer an alternate reading: that the Republican Party establishment had challenged the results up until the electors met to formally decide the election in mid-December 1960.

Greenberg zoomed in on the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, the Kentucky Senator and Eisenhower intimate Thruston B. Morton, who organized recounts in Illinois, Texas, and nine other battleground states and who claimed that he had received 35,000 letters alleging fraud. Several recounts were abandoned, and those that did get off the ground—including in Illinois—failed to suggest a large enough discrepancy to shift the results. Nixon aides claimed to journalists at the time that their candidate had nothing to do with the recounts, but Greenberg suggests that the close communication between Morton and Nixon’s campaign director Bob Finch makes these assertions hard to believe. Greenberg recently re-upped his findings for Politico, where he argued that Nixon’s post-election duplicity actually “furnished Trump with a playbook for thinking about political power.” 

Nixon offered some clues of his private rebellion against the results in his own retellings. In both Six Crises and RN, Nixon wrote bitterly about what he perceived as a press bias in favor of Kennedy. He recounted a meeting at the Ambassador Hotel with veteran Chicago Tribune political analyst Willard Edwards, who dropped by Nixon’s room just before he sent the concession telegram to Kennedy to commiserate about how “an overwhelming number of reporters covering Kennedy and me during the campaign favored Kennedy.” Nixon followed up the Edwards anecdote with a litany of complaints against the New York Times journalist James Reston—not the most consistent tone in a chapter ostensibly about a graceful concession. There were also some pesky break-ins and slush funds about a dozen years after Nixon’s concession that put quite a dent in his credulity on anything election-related.  

Even with these very real caveats, Nixon’s attention to retaining a public front of unity in 1960 is undeniable. In one of the more touching anecdotes from Six Crises, Nixon recounted a phone call he took in the days after the election, while he was getting some rest in Key Biscayne. On the line was Herbert Hoover, the oldest living president and a man familiar with painful concessions, having been shellacked as an incumbent by FDR during the 1932 deep-Depression campaign. The 86-year-old Hoover, calling from his Waldorf Towers apartment, conveyed a message from Joseph Kennedy asking for a meeting between Nixon and the president-elect. Nixon asked for advice. “I think we are in enough trouble in the world today; some indications of national unity are not only desirable but essential,” the older man replied. Nixon agreed to the meeting. 

As Trump’s bluster over the election results continues, and with a seemingly far less legitimate fraud argument than Nixon had, these public indications of care for national unity remain glaringly absent.

For more on the 1960 election, check out Edmund F. Kallina’s 2010 Kennedy V. Nixon: The Presidential Election of 1960 or pick up Theodore H. White’s classic The Making of the President 1960

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