Book review: The Making of the President, 1960-72, by Theodore H. White

Sixty years on, Theodore H. White’s ground-breaking account of the 1960 US presidential elections is still regarded as a landmark in political reporting. White’s first book and to a lesser extent, his three subsequent volumes on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 contests have provided a template for all such works produced since, for example, the late Richard Cramner’s massive account of the 1988 Bush Vs Dukakis contest, What It Takes or Mark Halperin and John Heilemann books on the 2008 and 2012 elections won by Barack Obama.

White died in 1986, but his writing still provides a unique and fascinating insight into these four contests whose outcomes would prove to have dramatic consequences for both America and the world.

1960

The 1960 elections had everything. Two youthful strong rival candidates both destined in their time to become important and controversial leaders, a fiercely fought primary campaign, a charismatic outsider battling against religious bigotry, an ‘October surprise’ (the upset caused by the TV debates) and a nail-biting photo finish.

White admittedly had a lot to work with but his spell-binding and thorough account is at least as fascinating in discussing the ‘nearly men’ such as Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller as it is about the eventual final nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

After a 2020 election which ended with only the second Roman Catholic being elected to the White House without the subject ever really being raised, its easy to forget how serious an electoral obstacle Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered in 1960 when he ultimately became the first.

The personality of Richard Nixon inevitably looms large throughout these four volumes. He was the Republican nominee in three of these four elections (1960, 1968 and 1972), the winner of two (1968 and 1972) and played a smaller role in the 1964 campaign. He comes across badly in this first volume. Initially, the clear favourite, he squanders his advantage, proving a difficult and awkward candidate losing the support of the popular incumbent President Eisenhower and lumbering his campaign with a foolhardy commitment to visit all fifty American states. He was lucky not to lose by more and luckier still to get a chance to stage a comeback.

Did White know about Kennedy’s relentless womanising? We do not know. He was certainly not alone in not reporting them if he did know, however, as non-reporting of candidates’ private lives was certainly the convention at the time. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were to be less fortunate in this regard. Nothing is also said about Mayor Daley’s electoral chicanery in Chicago. Kennedy would have won comfortably in the electoral college without Chicago anyway. Although it is discussed, less is made of the TV debates’ impact by White than has been made since. This is nevertheless a masterful account and the best of the four books in the series.

1964

Foregone conclusions rarely make for exciting elections and White is unfortunate that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was never really in doubt. White delivers an excellent account of the aftermath of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, however, and reminds us just how brilliant a candidate and a president LBJ was in his first year in office, regardless of what happened later. He also reminds us just how terrible a choice Republicans made when they opted for Barry Goldwater (“extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”) over the far more palatable and moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s vice president, a decade later.

“In your heart, you know he’s right,” Goldwater fans insisted. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” critics countered. In the end, Goldwater allowed himself to be painted into a corner and portrayed (White argues unfairly) as a potential welfare abolitionist and nuclear hawk. He lost to LBJ by a record margin. Again, less is made of things which have come to be seen as important since. Little is made of the landmark ‘Daisy’ Johnson TV campaign broadcast (in which a little girl picking daisies in a field is unexpectedly nuked. It was later parodied on The Simpsons) and ex-actor Ronald Reagan’s career-defining speech in favour of Goldwater is not mentioned at all.

1968

1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme side-lined forever by the escalating war. Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.


But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.


At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.

White explores all of the candidates. The short campaign of Bobby Kennedy which would ultimately be a cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Eugene McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.

But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”


There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. This isn’t discussed here (White would not have known about these behind the scenes shenanigans) though at times White does show a great deal of warmth towards Nixon here, something he would probably come to regret later.

1972

By 1972, White’s books were having a political impact in themselves. At one point, we are told the Democratic nominee George McGovern first decided to run for the highest office after being inspired by White’s first Making of the President book back in 1962. The liberal McGovern would go onto be buried in a forty-nine state Nixon landslide. Today, in 2021, both Nixon and McGovern are long gone (McGovern died in 2012, aged 90) but for the first time in these volumes, a clear link can be forged to the present. A number of people mentioned (Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Donald Rumsfeld, even William Calley of My Lai) are still alive, while we know, though it isn’t mentioned here, that the young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first met on the McGovern campaign. Also:

“And J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware of whom it was said had shaken half the right hands in his thirty years in public office, being defeated for the Senate by a young man, Joseph Biden Jr., who would reach the Constitutional Senatorial age of thirty, only a few weeks before he was due to take office.”

No other president in US history was making an impact in public life almost a full half century before they were in the White House. Reagan, after all, was not yet even an actor, 48 years before he became president. Trump, at that stage, was still a spoilt millionaire’s son. Perhaps nothing ever really changed.

Anyway, the shadow of Watergate looms large over the book. The initial summer 1972 break-in seems to have had no real impact on the November election. By the time, White finished the book, it was clearly becoming a major scandal although it was not yet at all obvious that it would ultimately bring down Nixon himself.

This election also spawned Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, from Hunter S. Thompson, a writer far more anti-Nixon and pro-McGovern than White was and indeed, rather fonder of including illustrations in his books.

In truth, you would have to be very, very, very interested in the machinations of the 1970s US Democratic Party indeed to find every page of either this or Thompson’s book wholly riveting. Despite this, it is still tempting to wonder how White might have covered the Ford-Carter contest of 1976 or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. As it is, we should be grateful enough for these four volumes which already tell us so much about a nation which had transformed beyond all recognition in the comparatively short period between 1960 and 1972.

Book review: Four volumes: The Making of the President, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, by Theodore H. White. Published by: Harper Collins.

Book review: JFK: Volume 1: 1917-1956

As the American electorate prepare to decide the fate of their 45th president, here is an excellent opportunity to take a look at the life of the 35th holder of that office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This book from acclaimed US historian, Fredrik Logevall, in fact, concentrates solely on the first forty years of Kennedy’s life, ending with his bid for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination. The fact that this bid failed was perhaps no bad thing as the main candidate, Adlai Stevenson was destined to go down to a second heavy defeat to the popular Republican President Eisenhower, a development which might have harmed JFK had he been Stephenson’s official designated running mate. Kennedy’s bid, in fact, left him very well placed to run for the presidency himself in 1960. It also represented a show of independence from the influence of his all-powerful father, the ageing former Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who had privately disagreed with his son’s attempt to become Stevenson’s Number Two.

Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, his eventful presidency and his assassination will all be dealt with in a future second volume.

The story of the young JFK is to some extent, the story of the Kennedy family itself and it is always a fascinating one, told brilliantly here with plenty of fresh new insights even if you think you’ve heard it all before. The ruthlessly ambitious but flawed father. The loving if occasionally mis-guided mother. The favourite son: Jack’s older brother Joe, who Jack was already starting to outshine even before his tragic wartime death. The tragic fates of his sisters Rosie and ‘Kick’. Bobby’s brilliant and youthful political strategising.

But Jack’s tale alone it itself a fascinating one. His easy elegance and charm. His endless battles with serious illness. His epic wartime heroism.

Some reviewers have seen similarities between Kennedy and the current president, Donald Trump and it’s true, there is some common ground. Both were born to racially prejudiced millionaire fathers of immigrant stock: Joseph Kennedy was the grandson of 19th century Irish immigrants, Donald Trump’s father Fred had German parents. Both JFK and Trump also shared an unfortunate penchant for womanising. In Trump’s case, this has resulted in a number of sexual assault accusations, a charge never levelled at JFK.

And there the similarities end. In his demagoguery and total disregard for the truth, Trump, in fact far more closely resembles the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy who oversaw the witch-hunts of the early 1950s, than he does Kennedy. The Kennedys’ unfortunate closeness to McCarthy is in fact, a significant point against them. Incidentally, there is a lesson here: McCarthy’s reign of terror ultimately came to an end largely due to his foolhardy decision to target the US Army in his self-serving campaigns. Trump’s own obvious contempt for the armed forces reflected in his odious comments undermining the heroism of the late Senator John McCain and about those killed in the world wars, have seriously undermined his re-election campaign.

Kennedy, in contrast, was a genuine hero of the Second World War. He maintained a cool head during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It is terrifying to imagine how someone of Trump’s volatile temperament would have fared under similar circumstances.

Finally, Kennedy frequently demonstrated a level of wit, intelligence and sophistication almost without parallel in any US president. Trump, in contrast, seems never to have uttered an eloquent sentence in his life. His most memorable slogan has not been “Ask not what your country can do for you” but his reality TV catchphrase, “You’re fired.” The “make America great again” mantra, popularised by the current president in fact long predates Trump. He is narcissistic and appears to have no real sense of humour at all. His idea of wit is to be insulting: crudely mocking a disabled man or suggesting a female interviewer’s perfectly intelligent and level-headed but challenging line of questioning must be the attributable to the fluctuations of her menstrual cycle.

In short, JFK was an infinitely better leader than Trump could ever have been. And, ultimately, a much better person. As the late Lloyd Bentsen once almost said of George HW Bush’s politically maladroit running mate, Dan Quayle in 1988: he’s no Jack Kennedy. No one is.

Book review: American Maelstrom

1968:  Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally.  (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

1968: Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 had seen President Lyndon B. Johnson defeat his rather alarming opponent Senator Barry Goldwater by a record margin. But this already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme sidelined forever by the escalating war,
Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.

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Michael A. Cohen’s book is especially effective in its portrayal of the hugely diverse range of characters who ran for president in 1968. President Johnson: a man so crude he would sometimes take his own “Johnson” out during meetings. Bobby Kennedy is also demystified. Tragic as his assassination was, Cohen dispels the myth that his victory would have been inevitable had he lived. In fact, he may well not have even won the Democratic Party nomination. McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.

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But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. Everything shifted to the Right. Nothing was ever the same again.

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Book review: American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A Cohen. Published by: Oxford University Press.

The quest for a new JFK

Fifty year have now passed since the presidency of John F. Kennedy and one thing is obvious: the US Democratic Party has never escaped the ghost of his memory. True, no member of the Kennedy family has ever been on the presidential ticket in the years since (Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, came the closest as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972). But consciously or unconsciously, the Democrats have repeatedly opted for the man they have perceived to be closest to the charismatic, idealistic Kennedy ideal as their candidate for the presidency. The fact that the Kennedy name has since been tarnished by revelations about his prolific sex life, his dealings with the Mafia and by harsh reassessments of his presidency has made no difference.

Admittedly, Lyndon B. Johnson, the tall garrulous Texan succeeded Kennedy in 1963 could not have been less like the affluent charming young president. Hubert Humphrey, who went down to a narrow defeat against JFK’s old foe Richard Nixon in 1968 was hardly a dead ringer for Kennedy either. Like Johnson, he had even run against JFK for the nomination in 1960 and been defeated. But Johnson, Humphrey and George McGovern, the party’s candidate in 1972 were all essentially Kennedy substitutes picked simply because the real thing was unavailable. Had he not been assassinated when he was on the verge of winning the nomination in 1968, Bobby Kennedy not Humphrey would have been nominated and perhaps beaten Nixon in 1968. Likewise Ted Kennedy, the remaining son would most likely have been the candidate in 1972 had it not been for the scandal attached to the Chappaquiddick tragedy in 1969. History could have been very different.

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