CHICAGO – SEPTEMBER 25: NIXON KENNEDY DEBATE John F. Kennedy, left, and Richard M. Nixon at the first televised presidential debate. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
On the eve of the 2020 presidential election, even those who are confident in the final result are timid to publicly put all their eggs in one basket. Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads by a healthy margin in both national polls and early absentee voting, while President Donald Trump hopes his in-person barnstorming of swing states has orchestrated a late surge of support. Both sides acknowledge that America will likely not know the winner by Wednesday morning.
After a year of pandemic, state-imposed lockdowns, an economic crisis, and widespread rioting, the most destructive development of the presidential election would be an unclear result and a loss of public confidence. Both parties have laid the groundwork to possibly dispute the outcome.
Since the summer, Republicans have cast aspersions on mail-in ballots, the use of which will break all previous records this year. The allegation is that mail-in ballots are open to fraud, forgery, and outright elimination. Most discomforting is Donald Trump’s repeated refusal—for over a month—to state that he would concede a defeat and consent to a transfer of power.
The Democrats haven’t been much better. Despite an assurance given during the first presidential debate (“If I lose, that will be accepted”), Joe Biden has contradicted himself on the campaign trail, saying, “The only way we lose is by the chicanery going on with regard to polling places.” Democratic operatives have spent months discrediting the mail-in ballot system, with accusations of voter suppression, conspiracies about Post Office manipulation, and sensational tales of people stealing mailboxes on neighborhood corners.
There is a not-improbable possibility that the United States will be rocked by a political crisis—either a stolen election or, more likely, an election accused of being stolen by the disadvantaged party. How both Donald Trump and Joe Biden choose to react to that scenario may decide the legitimacy of the American government for years to come.
Not since 1960 have party leaders been faced with such a difficult choice—investigate fraud and abuse to the hilt or let sleeping dogs lie and carry on. The legendary presidential election that year, between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy, had the closest popular vote of the 20th century, less than 113,000 votes out of over 68 million cast. The results of the Electoral College hinged on Illinois and Texas, both declared for Kennedy. Continuing questions about the validity of the vote in those two states has permanently tarnished the legacy of Camelot.
Illinois’ Cook County political machine had been ensconced in power since the Great Depression. Its leader, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, had been noncommittal during the Democratic primaries, and was not known as a Kennedy partisan. In November 1960, his concerns were much more local, with the well-being of the machine taking precedence over the party’s national leaders.
“Daley is worried that year about a fellow named Benjamin Adamowski, who had been one of his allies and was now the state’s attorney [for Cook County], and he’s running for reelection. And he wants that guy out, because the state’s attorney can make big trouble for big city machines,” explains historian David Pietrusza, author of 1960: LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies. “So if Mayor Daley can steal the election or win the election—however you want to phrase it—to beat Adamowski and he can elect the president of the United States in a bargain, well, so much the better.”
In the month prior to the election, there were numerous reports about abnormalities and suspicious occurrences. “The reports are coming out (just like you’re seeing now actually), where you’re seeing a hundred mail-in ballots dumped here, people being stricken from the election rolls as fraudulent there, etc,” says Pietrusza. “There’s reports in the Chicago Tribune—which of course is a solidly Republican paper then—but they’re coming up and they’re digging on the facts and they see people are registered to vote from vacant lots, or places where there aren’t apartments, the usual dead people are voting, people are voting in multiple locations and precincts, and all these things are being reported in October.”
Five days before the election, the city’s Commission on Honest Elections—formed by former Chicago Corporation counsel David H. Brill—contended to a grand jury that 10 percent of the city’s voter rolls were irregular, filled with “deadheads, ghosts, and phantoms.”
Neither was Daley the only bad actor in Chicago. Sam Giancana, the lead mobster of the Chicago outfit and heir to Al Capone, was very friendly with Joe Kennedy, the candidate’s father, and worked hard to ensure Jack made it the White House. According to some, this was as innocent as hiring drivers to get people to the polls in the mob-controlled waterfront and whipping the union vote. Others contend it was more underhanded, including voter intimidation and stuffing some ballot boxes while tossing others into the river.
Whatever Daley’s and Giancana’s methods, they were effective. Kennedy received over 1,378,000 votes in Cook County, more than he received in any single state excluding New York, California, Ohio, Michigan, and Massachusetts. This enormous turnout allowed him to eke out a win statewide by a slim margin of less than 9,000 votes (while Adamowski lost his job by 25,000 votes).
Further south, the Texas of 1960 was dominated by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Senate majority leader and Kennedy’s running mate. Johnson had been in politics for over 30 years and had successfully amassed a $20 million fortune through corrupt licensing. “The Johnsons’ wealth was rooted in raw political power,” writes economist David R. Henderson.
After his initial run for the Senate ended in defeat in 1942, Johnson learned that success in politics sometimes required dirty tricks. “So when he runs for the Senate in 1948, he’s not going to make the same mistake again. And he has allies in certain counties in Texas, particularly a guy named George Parr,” Pietrusza tells The American Conservative. “You see, it was sort of like early ballot harvesting. You see all these names, which kind of come in a box, in the last minute, in this one precinct, in this one county in Texas. And they all come in, remarkably, all in alphabetical order. And they are just about all for Lyndon Baines Johnson. And Johnson wins that election by 87 votes and is known, until he has his own landslide against Barry Goldwater in 1964, as ‘Landslide Lyndon,’ very derisively.”
Similar peculiarities were reported in Texas in 1960. In Democratic Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn’s home county of Fannin, 4,895 registered voters cast 6,138 ballots. In a precinct in Angela County, Kennedy won 147 votes to Nixon’s 24—despite only 86 individuals voting. And when Nixon did win a precinct in Fort Bend County 458 to 350, 182 of his ballots were declared void.
Despite widespread indications of duplicity, Richard Nixon decided not to contest the election results. “I think he had his suspicions; he didn’t have his proofs,” theorizes Pietrusza. And being only 47, Nixon probably realized (correctly) that he had future presidential campaigns to plan, ones that should not be bogged down by charges of being a “sore loser.”
Yet while Nixon publicly accepted the results, behind-the-scenes party workers did what he couldn’t. RNC Chairman (and Kentucky Senator) Thruston Ballard Morton initiated calls for recounts in 11 states. After a month, the efforts petered out, with the only substantial change being a circuit judge declaring that Kennedy had actually won the state of Hawaii, not Nixon.
The true winner of the election is an unknowable and is still debated by historians. That there were errors in vote counting and outright fraud—particularly in Chicago—is not disputed. But whether it was substantial enough to shift Kennedy’s 9,000-vote lead in Illinois, and his larger 46,000 vote lead in Texas, is a harder case to prove.
Still, the narrative of a stolen election is widely accepted in the popular consciousness. No one less than Andrea Mitchell, NBC correspondent and one of the D.C. establishment’s most pedigreed journalists, says the election “had obviously been stolen in 1960” from Richard Nixon. Mitchell called Nixon’s decision not to contest one of the “better moments in American history.”
Stores are already being boarded up in preparation for post-election violence. If machinations are at play, are they worth ignoring to preserve a functioning body politic? Or should such consequences be waved away? These are the questions that Richard Nixon asked himself 60 years ago, and that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden must ask themselves as they watch the returns come in tonight.
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