Both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were elected to Congress in 46, a year in which the New Deal took a serious beating as the Republicans regained control of Congress on the slogan “Had Enough?” Nixon of course, had campaigned against incumbent Jerry Voorhis on an anti-New Deal platform, but it’s often forgotten that when JFK first ran for the House in 1946, he differentiated himself from his Democratic primary opposition by describing himself as a “fighting conservative.” In private, Kennedy’s antipathy to the traditional FDR New Deal was even more extensive.
When Kennedy and Nixon were sworn in on the same day, both were already outspoken on the subject of the emerging Cold War. While running for office in 1946, Kennedy proudly told a radio audience of how he had lashed out against a left-wing group of Young Democrats for being naive on the subject of the Soviet Union, and how he had also attacked the emerging radical faction headed by Henry Wallace. Thus, when Kennedy entered the House, he was anything but “progressive” in his views of either domestic or foreign policy.
It didn’t take long for these two to form a friendship. Both were Navy men who had served in the South Pacific, and both saw themselves as occupying the vital center of their parties. Just as JFK lashed out against the New Deal and the radical wing of the Democratic party, so too did Richard Nixon distance himself from the right-wing of the Republican party. Nixon’s support of Harry Truman’s creation of NATO and the aid packages to Greece and Turkey meant rejecting the old guard isolationist bent of the conservative wing that had been embodied in “Mr. Republican” Senator Robert Taft. Indeed, when it came time for Nixon to back a nominee in 1948, his support went to the more centrist Thomas E. Dewey, and not to the conservative Taft.
Kennedy decided to go into politics mainly because of the influence of his father. Joe Kennedy, Jr. had been killed in the European arena of World War II and so the political ambitions of the family got placed on the shoulders of John. Nixon, however, got involved in politics by chance. While celebrating the end of the war in New York, he received a telegram from an old family friend indicating that they needed someone to run against the Democrat Jerry Voorhis. Nixon was excited by the proposition and so began his political career.
One aspect of this book that really impressed me was the detail that Matthews put into describing the campaign strategies of each man. Kennedy was a man who wanted to practically buy his position. Relying almost solely upon his father’s influence and money, he achieved any goal that was put forth. By donating mass amounts of money and even pinning twenty-dollar bills to the jackets of citizens, he bought his votes by any means necessary. Also, Kennedy made good use of his sex appeal. Knowing that he was handsome, he won over thousands of female voters by having “tea-parties.”
On the contrary, Nixon did not have an unlimited supply of money, influence or good looks. He had to rely on good campaigning and smear tactics. Nixon too tried to use war stories and the self-made image of a war vet trying to build a life for himself. This did not work as well as his other ideas, though. Nixon hired people to dig up all of the political dirt on Voorhis that was out there. Once material was found that claimed that the NC PAC endorsed Voorhis, he resented it at a clutch moment during a live debate. This shocked both the crowd and Voorhis and gave the seat in Congress to Nixon. (pgs. 36-38)
The careers of Nixon and Kennedy became intertwined. Both were young congressmen who had been in the war and both had had no previous political experience. When they were both elected to the Congress in 1946 they were placed on the Board of Education and Labor together. When Nixon was elected Vice-president in 1952, Kennedy was elected a Senator and the two were assigned offices directly across from each other.
Matthews does an exemplary job of showing how the two politicians were often grouped together. He focuses on the fact that they were from the same “class.” He also shows how they were elected for the same positions and assigned to the same projects and became friendly with each other. Having offices adjacent to one another makes a relationship grow. All this helped to build the drama that surrounded the election of 1960 for President.
The two men that came to the Capitol together all of the sudden were running against each other for the country’s highest position. The election became the classic battle of the popular kid versus the nerd. Kennedy portrayed the all-American high school boy. He was handsome, charming, and had love for his country. Nixon, however, was the typical outcast. He was not as charming or handsome as Kennedy was. He had relied on hard work and making his opponent look bad as means of getting ahead. In this case, popularity won and Kennedy became the President. America made way for the administration that would be known as “Camelot.”
Every American learns about the myth of Kennedy and Nixon. John F. Kennedy is portrayed as one who was one of the greatest people that this nation ever produced. He was loved by all and was a president who only made good choices for his country. He stood up to Nikita Khrushchev and Cuba and saved the world from nuclear destruction. He tried to save the Cuban people from Communism and tried to help the South Vietnamese from the same fate.
Richard M. Nixon, however, remains a man that the United States hates to admit that existed . He is remembered as the man who appeared ghastly next to Kennedy in the Great Debate of 1960. His presidential administration is one that stole and deceived to get ahead. Nixon was a leader that lied to his citizens, the ones that voted him into office twice.
Matthews makes sure that all of these myths are disposed and that no biases are shown. He reminds the world of the Kennedy tactic of relying solely on money and looks to win campaigns. He tells of the ill-fated and hardly thought-out Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy was trying to give the Cuban people help that they obviously did not want. No one remembers this though. Kennedy was the man who okayed the United States sponsored assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.
This led the way for a complete coup and the eventual weak political position that forced the country to succumb to The author shows that Nixon was not the horrible man that he is always remembered as being. He lets it be known that Nixon was a hard worker who loved his country and it democratic tradition. Matthews remembers Nixon’s fight against communism and his attempts to rid the government of its few communist sympathizers such as Alger Hiss. He suffered the coldness of a president who thoughtlessly gave his vice-president no respect or credit for any decisions.
With the common bonds of age, and mutual sentiments on the New Deal, the Cold War, and their centrist positions within their parties, the two enjoyed a friendship that would endure until the 1960 presidential campaign destroyed it.
If Matthews puts any bias at all, he makes Kennedy look worse and Nixon look better. He makes Kennedy look as someone who never really had any political talent. He looks as someone who was just relying on money from his father. One the contrary, Matthews shows Nixon as one who has gotten a bad rap. He shows him as one who overcame adversity to help his country and who
took a few downfalls along the way. He was one who became tired of constantly battling Kennedy after Kennedy and the thought of fighting another Kennedy drove him to do things he otherwise would have not done.
This book did a tremendous job portraying and inter-weaving two very important figures of the century. Matthews put all the information into a format that was easy to read and enjoyable. In my opinion this is a very relevant and intresting story that needed to be told. The American people deserve to know that the man they hold with such a high regard was not that great. Also, they should know that the man they all hate was not that bad a guy. This book gives the american people a good idea of what went on, and it may have been to the suprise of many americans.