by Lindsey Richardson, Curator of Collections, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
As the 1960 presidential campaign crept closer, Richard Nixon’s star seemed at last to be on the rise: he had an illustrious political career as a Congressman and Vice President, he was the next-in-line to a popular president, and he had demonstrated that he wasn’t afraid of the Soviets and knew how to take a hard line against communism. But Nixon’s nomination for president was made more difficult by two men: his own party’s sitting president, Dwight Eisenhower, and his political rival, Nelson Rockefeller.
Eisenhower proved an obstacle mainly because of his lack of enthusiasm for Richard Nixon. He rarely made speeches or campaign appearances on behalf of his vice president and once, when asked about Nixon’s contribution to the Eisenhower administration, he snapped, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
Some have said this remark was meant to remind the reporter who asked the question to ask at the next weekly press conference, but many interpreted it as a damning assessment of Nixon. Even when speaking at the Republication National Convention in July 1960, Eisenhower didn’t mention Richard Nixon by name. His support always appeared conspicuously half-hearted.
Nelson Rockefeller, elected governor of New York in 1958, was the son of a wealthy American family. ‘Rocky’ as he was known, was an excellent campaigner, with a large, organized staff and lots of money. Rockefeller represented the liberal wing of the Republican Party, pushing state legislation that was pro-labor and pro-civil rights. While this agenda satisfied some of his supporters, it alienated large numbers of other voters, particularly outside of New York.
In December 1959, he announced that he would not run for president and that he would not accept a vice-presidential nomination. This would seem to clear the way for Nixon, but Rockefeller wasn’t completely out of the race yet. While he wasn’t going to be on the Republican ticket, Rockefeller still wanted to influence the Republican Party platform. He wanted to push Nixon and fellow Republicans toward more liberal ideals. To that end, he met with Nixon days before the convention to add a more liberal slant to the party platform, particularly on issues of civil rights and national defense. This secret overnight meeting enraged some within the party, although it pleased liberals.
The Republican National Convention, which met in Chicago that summer, roiled with disunity in part because of the last-minute changes to the platform. Despite eleventh-hour bids in support of Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, however, Richard Nixon was named the Republican nominee for president.
Nixon’s nomination set the stage for his race against Democrat John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Both Nixon and Kennedy were nominated over other close rivals and in spite of fractures within their parties. Those intra-party disagreements later manifested nationwide in a historically-close election outcome – the popular vote was decided by less than .1%. The race went to Kennedy, although many wondered if Nixon had chosen to challenge the results, whether he might have been declared president in 1960.
To learn more about what happened in the 1960 election after the conventions, visit our exhibit, A Time For Greatness, on display at the Museum until November 13, or visit JFK.org/ATimeForGreatness.