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The Making of the President, Sixty Years Ago

The Making of the President, Sixty Years Ago

In 1960 journalist Theodore H. White wrote his bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book about John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Our editorial board member Michael Mandelbaum looks back.

Michael Mandelbaum

Journalism, the saying goes, is the first rough draft of history. As such it is perishable: relevant, sometimes urgently important on the day it appears but then rapidly losing its usefulness and fading quickly, like briefly blooming flowers. Journalists themselves, however, like other writers of non-fiction, can produce books of enduring significance that sometimes even affect the public life about which they write. One such work celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year: The Making of the President 1960 (1961).

Its author, Theodore H. White (1915–86), was a distinguished magazine journalist who had covered China during World War II and Western Europe in the early postwar years. (He later wrote a compelling 1978 memoir about those and other experiences entitled, In Search of History.) He decided to follow the 1960 presidential campaign from beginning to end and in so doing he changed the way Americans see politics. Reporters had always covered presidential campaigns, filing news stories daily, but White assembled the events in a single narrative and went to press only months after election day. He was thus able to provide not only a more detailed but also a far more personal account than had previously been available of the politics and the personalities involved.

The book became a bestseller, won a Pulitzer Prize, and began a new genre of political writing. Notable subsequent examples of this new kind of “campaign book” include not only his own accounts of the next three presidential elections but also, for 1968, An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 (1969) by a team of reporters from the London Sunday Times; for 1972, The Boys on the Bus (1973) by Timothy Crouse, which took as its subject the journalists covering the campaign; and, for 1988, What It Takes: The Way to the White House (1992) by Richard Ben Cramer, with in-depth portrayals of all the aspirants to the presidency that year, among them the also-ran Democratic Senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

White’s coverage of the 1960 campaign, with its emphasis on personal information about the candidates, also began the erosion of the wall between a public figure’s public and private lives, which made the first a legitimate subject of reporting but placed the second off-limits. Over the succeeding decades that partition disappeared entirely. White certainly did not intend it, but the personal scrutiny to which American politicians are now subject began with his book.

The Making of the President 1960 gave rise to another phenomenon of 20th-century American politics: the political power of the family name and the legacy of the thirty-fifth President, which came to be known as “the Kennedy mystique.” The celebration, sometimes spilling over into adulation, of what, in the sweep of American history, was not a particularly consequential presidency is difficult for anyone who did not live through it and its immediate aftermath to understand.

The aura that surrounded the man and, by association, other members of his family for almost half a century after 1960 owed a great deal to the tragic way his time in office ended, with his assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. It also stemmed, however, from the powerful affection Kennedy generated in the ranks of the reporters who covered him, including Theodore H. White. The earliest and most influential posthumous appraisal of Kennedy’s time in office, one that defined it as a magical period in the nation’s history, came from White. A week after the assassination the late President’s widow, Jacqueline, gave White an interview that formed the basis for an article in the widely read Life magazine in which she affixed to the Kennedy era the name of a then-current Broadway musical based on the legends about the court of the medieval English King Arthur: Camelot.

The Kennedy mystique began before JFK’s death, however, with the way the press portrayed him as a presidential candidate. If what has sometimes seemed to be a cult of John F. Kennedy has a point of origin, it is perhaps on page 158 of the first edition of The Making of the President 1960:

Sitting in the back of the empty plane with a few friends he trusted, he let his mind travel an ungoverned span of thoughts, which came and went as his mind flicked across the country. It was the range, the extent, the depth and detail, of information and observation that dazzled, then overwhelmed, the listener.

That is not the way that reporters had described political candidates in the past.

Published six decades ago as a snapshot of American politics at the time it was written, White’s book has, inevitably, become a period piece. The differences between the political world he portrayed and the one in which Americans live in 2021 demonstrate the enormous changes that sixty years of history have brought to the United States. Of these, three in particular stand out.

First, the 1960 election can be seen in retrospect as a watershed in the way the country selects its chief executives. From the middle of the 19th century, local political leaders, known to their critics as “bosses,” had assembled in conventions—most often in Chicago, the city most accessible to the entire country by rail—to bargain, compromise, and finally choose a presidential candidate, with their most important consideration being the ability to win the upcoming general election.

Presidential primaries, in which Democrats and Republicans vote for the candidate their state will support for their party’s presidential nomination, were introduced at the beginning of the 20th century but only became crucial in 1960. Kennedy knew that the party leaders would deny him the nomination unless he demonstrated popular appeal in the country, and so he entered seven primaries. In two of them—Wisconsin and West Virginia—he defeated Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, which opened the way to his nomination. Thereafter, and with a glitch in the turbulent year 1968, when the same Hubert Humphrey, by then the sitting Vice President, received the Democratic presidential nomination without scoring primary victories, popular voting took over the system for selecting the candidate in both major parties.

At one point in The Making of the President 1960, White lists the presidents whose candidacies emerged from conventions in Chicago that operated under the old system: Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, Cleveland, Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Harding, Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Whether the subsequent, more democratically chosen presidents performed better in office than those on that list is, to say the least, a matter for debate.

The book illustrates the transformation of American political life over six decades in another striking way. As the Democratic nominee, Kennedy had to mobilize the elements of his party’s electoral coalition—its base—which had three major parts: the Southern states, the unions, and the big cities. He did sufficiently well with each group to win enough states to secure the presidency. The unions and the big cities in 1960 were populated in no small part by what were known as “ethnics”—immigrants and their children and grandchildren from Ireland, Germany, and Southern and Eastern Europe. The demographic, economic, and cultural forces that have reshaped the country since then have brought about a political reversal. The descendants of those who made up the Kennedy coalition had become, in 2020, the mainstays of the electoral coalition that supported Donald J. Trump.

Finally, from the perspective of the current political era, with its celebration of (some would say obsession with) political “firsts”—the first member of a particular group to hold a particular public position—the outcome of the 1960 contest can be seen as the first “first.” It made Kennedy the first Catholic President of the United States. White calls the cleavage between Protestant and Catholic “the largest and most important division in American society.” In his most significant campaign speech, Kennedy told a group of Protestant ministers gathered in Houston, some of whom had expressed concern about the possible influence of the Vatican on a Kennedy presidency, that he was wholly committed to the separation of church and state and would never allow Church officials to influence his policies.

With the shattering of that formidable barrier, what followed was . . . nothing. No other Catholic won the presidency until last year, when Joe Biden became the second of his faith to do so. It is a measure of the changes in America over sixty years, and especially the decline in the political salience of the once-central schism within Christianity (effectively replaced by the gap between the religiously observant of all faiths and those with a secular orientation), that the second coming of what was the central feature of the 1960 presidential election has gone almost unnoticed.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, an editorial board member of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

United States