"You gotta swallow this one," says a Republican hack in Oliver Stone's Nixon, referring to the 1960 election, in which John F. Kennedy prevailed. "They stole it fair and square."
That Richard Nixon was cheated out of the presidency in 1960 has become almost an accepted fact. You've probably heard the allegations: Kennedy's operatives fixed the tallies in Texas and Illinois, giving him those states' 51 electoral votes and a majority in the Electoral College. Fearing that to question the results would harm the country, Nixon checked his pride and declined to mount a challenge.
The story is rich in irony: The much-hated Nixon, later driven from the presidency for cheating in an election, puts country before personal gain. The beloved Kennedy, waltzing through life, pulls off the political crime of the century. Nixon's defenders like the story because it diminishes Watergate. His detractors like it since it allows them to appear less than knee-jerk—magnanimously crediting Nixon with noble behavior while eluding charges of Kennedy worship.
Ironic, yes. But true?
The race was indeed close—the closest of the century. Kennedy received only 113,000 votes more than Nixon out of the 68 million ballots cast. His 303-219 electoral-vote margin obscured the fact that many states besides Texas and Illinois could have gone either way. California's 32 electoral votes, for example, originally fell into Kennedy's column, but Nixon claimed them on Nov. 17 after absentee ballots were added.
Even before Election Day, rumors circulated about fraud, especially in Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley's machine was known for delivering whopping Democratic tallies by fair means and foul. When it became clear how narrowly Nixon lost, outraged Republicans grew convinced that cheating had tipped the election and lobbied for an investigation.
Nixon always insisted that others, including President Eisenhower, encouraged him to dispute the outcome but that he refused. A challenge, he told others, would cause a "constitutional crisis," hurt America in the eyes of the world, and "tear the country apart." Besides, he added, pursuing the claims would mean "charges of 'sore loser' would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career."
Classic Nixon: "Others" urge him to follow a less admirable course, but he spurns their advice for the high road. (William Safire once noted that he always used to tell Nixon to take the easy path so that Nixon could say in his speeches, "Others will say we should take the easy course, but …") Apart from the suspect neatness of this account, however, there are reasons to doubt its veracity.
First, Eisenhower quickly withdrew his support for a challenge, making it hard for Nixon to go forward. According to Nixon's friend Ralph De Toledano, a conservative journalist, Nixon knew Ike's position yet claimed anyway that he, not the president, was the one advocating restraint. "This was the first time I ever caught Nixon in a lie," Toledano recalled.
More to the point, while Nixon publicly pooh-poohed a challenge, his allies did dispute the results—aggressively. The New York Herald Tribune's Earl Mazo, a friend and biographer of Nixon's, recounted