November 24, 2013
An Imponderable CascadeThe 1960 contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was a watershed in American Presidential history, the consequences of which are still being felt. Narrowly won by Kennedy, it was the first in which both candidates were born in the Twentieth Century and the first won by a Roman Catholic.
Although both men would occupy the Oval Office, neither would finish their remaining term; Kennedy because he was murdered in Dallas at the start of a promising re-election campaign following three somewhat uneven- but eventful and generally positive- years as President. Had he been re-elected the world would now be very different. But- as with Abraham Lincoln- we'll never know what might have happened.
Nixon would later win a cliff-hanger in 1968 after Lyndon Johnson's surprising withdrawal from a contest in which he was eligible for what would have effectively been a third term. Johnson had clearly relished being President, but he was also good at political calculus.
Another imponderable was the second assassination of a Kennedy within 5 years; by eliminating the strongest "peace" candidate right after he'd won a decisive primary, it left Nixon facing the weakest Democrat (who still made a race of it at the end). One is forced to wonder what might have happened had "Clean Gene" McCarthy urged his young followers to vote against Nixon in the weeks before the election.
In contrast to his narrow '68 margin, Nixon won a smashing victory over McGovern in '72, largely on the strength of his surprising visit to China, only to be embarrassed into resigning by Watergate, well before the end of his second term, which was completed by Gerald Ford, the first Speaker of the House to be elevated to the presidency, a contingency brought about by earlier revelations that Vice President Spiro Agnew had accepted bribes while governor of Maryland.
Two more links would be added to this chain of improbable Presidential events that began with JFK's victory in 1960: the election of Jimmy Carter, a fundamentalist Christian Georgia governor who was also an Annapolis grad and trained nuclear engineer, but had disappointed the electorate by failing to deal assertively with the Iranian hostage crisis, arguably a complication of the deal Henry Kissinger made with the Shah of Iran while while serving as Nixon's (who else?) Secretary of State in 1973
Kennedy and Nixon both had solid accomplishments while in Office; Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile crisis narrowly averted nuclear war which could well have been catastrophic. He and Kruschev both deserve great credit, although it must also be pointed out that Kruschev's ploy of smuggling nuclear weapons into Cuba is what created it.