William Katz: The importance of 1960

Among Bill Katz’s most recent posts here are “Media mutters,” “A tale of two speeches,” and “I do solemnly swear.” This morning he writes:

It was magical — marching down Chicago’s Madison Street in a torchlight parade, with real torches, four nights before a presidential election.
The date was November 4, 1960. The parade was for John F. Kennedy and all the local candidates that Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, could squeeze into open Chryslers. Behind me was a guy running for county clerk, or some such job. In machine politics, my friends, that’s a few notches above president of the United States.
Four nights later, about 5:00 a.m., we were wandering these same streets, not really sure who’d been elected president. The Chicago Sun-Times came out with a headline, IT’S KENNEDY, followed shortly by a new one, IS IT KENNEDY? Nearby, in a hotel room, the mayor scrounged for the votes that would give Illinois to Kennedy, make him president, and end the doubt. He found them.
Some claim he found them among the residents of graveyards. Look, where does it say in the Constitution that the biologically challenged can’t vote?
I was a senior at the University of Chicago, and a campaign aide to Democratic Senator Paul H. Douglas, a fine man, and a Marine hero who’d lost the use of an arm at Okinawa. The Democratic Party was starkly different then. It was, proudly, a national-defense party. Kennedy had fought for its nomination against hawkish giants of the Senate: Stuart Symington of Missouri had been the first secretary of the Air Force. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, although liberal, was also a staunch anti-Communist. Lyndon B. Johnson was a deadly effective Senate majority leader. Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, who championed a strong military, became chairman of the party that year. As they say in the generic-drug ads, compare to the ingredients of the Democratic Party today. Sitting in Henry Jackson’s chair is Howard Dean.
It was a powerful party. In 1960 the Democrats controlled 65 percent of each house of Congress.
But a Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in the White House, and Kennedy ran against Ike’s record. Because Kennedy was later martyred, many today don’t realize how divisive his candidacy was, and how little ardor he aroused in much of his party. There was, first, an aloofness. I once asked Paul Douglas what he thought of Kennedy, and he replied, “brilliant, but cold.” His record was shallow, his standing in the Senate modest. At 43, he was widely thought too young. If elected he would succeed Roosevelt, Truman, and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower had come to the presidency as the architect of victory in Europe. Kennedy was often viewed as buying the office with dad’s money. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt openly opposed his nomination, citing inexperience. The Kennedy who stared down the Soviets at the Cuban Missile Crisis two years later did not exist in 1960.
I saw him up close on September 26th, the night of his first TV debate with Vice President Richard M. Nixon, held in Chicago. We were at a rally in Glenview, and Kennedy came out after the debate. He’d done well, earning a robust cheer when he entered. But then we noticed that his hands were shaking. Someone near me said, “This kid wants to be president?” It was the kind of doubt that dogged him in the campaign. He then rambled through his remarks, endorsed local candidates, pronouncing some names wrong, said a few kind words about Paul Douglas, and left.
Obviously, Kennedy convinced enough voters — barely enough — that he had the goods. Partly, it was his charm and dynamic style. Partly, it was his opponent, the plodding, plain-vanilla Nixon. Kennedy turned a negative, his youth, into a positive, branding himself the spokesman of a new generation, “born in this century,” as he’d later say in his inaugural. His campaign song was “High Hopes.” Nixon’s slogan was “Experience counts.” Optimism versus seasoning. Optimism won.
Political writers love to dissect the ’60 election. But was it that important? I think it was, because 1960 was a “feeling election.” In my generation there’ve been only two — 1960, and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. We can define a “feeling” election as one that produces a gut sense that something special is happening, some great change that dazzles the nation. Not everyone might like the feeling, but they feel it. Kennedy and Reagan personified the “feeling” election.
Most elections, after all, are fairly routine. Only one man thought Jimmy Carter’s win in 1976 brought Heaven to Earth, and he’s built a center in Atlanta to commemorate the event.
Both 1960 and 1980 had one thing in common: In both years the winning candidate faced grave doubts that even permeated his own party. Reagan faced an even greater worry than Kennedy — that he was a scripted movie actor who couldn’t be trusted with war and peace. Readers will recall that some Republicans wanted to name former President Gerald R. Ford as Reagan’s running mate, creating a “co-presidency” to assure concerned voters. It didn’t happen, and Reagan didn’t level Moscow.
I thought about 1960 and 1980 while watching Hillary Clinton last week, and wondered whether 2008 could be a feeling election. On the GOP side, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who could produce that lovin’ feeling. There are fine possible presidents, but they flash “continue” rather than “new era.” On the other side, Barack Obama had the potential, but tossed it away. So far he’s given the Democratic race a new birth of boredom. He can still rally, but I wouldn’t bet my Al Gore hand-powered cooling fan on it.
That leaves Hillary, and that is the great threat to conservatives. The candidate who makes it a feeling election usually wins, and I suspect that’s what she’ll attempt to do. She’s already attacking the Kennedy/Reagan “doubt” problem by trying to appear the grown-up on national defense, at the same time appeasing the Ho Chi Minh Choral Society on her party’s left. If nominated, I have no doubt she’ll make her appeal spiritual as well as political, claiming that her election will uplift us all.
Some conservatives think Hillary will be easy to beat. So wrong. Conservatives must not commit the same blunder liberals have, believing that if we think something is true, others will think the same because we are so bright, so decent, and support the troops. Hillary Clinton and her team are slick professionals, with a happy mix of savvy and savagery. They’ve studied those past elections. And they have Bill Clinton, who knew how to feel our pain, increase it, and still win.
Get ready to battle a candidate who invokes the spirit of a new age, because Hillary is too smart not to.
ADDENDUM: Welcome back John Batchelor. Some readers may not know the name, but others will regard it with reverence. Starting the day after 9-11, John Batchelor and Paul Alexander began a show on ABC radio to report the war on terror. Paul Alexander later left, making it the John Batchelor Show. It was intelligent, informed, and drew the best reporters and experts. Sadly, it was taken off last year. Now John Batchelor is back on WABC radio in New York, 7{00-10:00 p.m. Eastern time, Sunday nights. If you’re far away, you can pick him up on streaming audio at the WABC website (http://www.wabcradio.com/). If you like Power Line, you will not be disappointed.

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