Maurice Isserman, Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of History at Hamilton College and co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, now in its fourth edition, spoke on “The Election of 1960” to a full house at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) on October 6. Professor Isserman’s presentation represented the third installment in the presidential election series sponsored by the AHI’s student-run Publius Society.
In assessing the contest that brought John F. Kennedy to the presidency with a margin of little more than 100,000 popular votes, Professor Isserman sees more similarities than differences in the political vision of both Kennedy and Richard Nixon. He challenged the view that Kennedy’s election represented a pivotal moment in the rise of American liberalism. In the election, Democrats had lost more than twenty seats in the House of Representatives. With a narrow margin of victory and a minority of the total popular vote, Kennedy brought to the presidency a rather modest domestic agenda. He expected to concentrate his energies on foreign policy, especially the formidable task of rolling back Communist gains in the Third World. Kennedy was less a shaper of domestic legislation than a responder to domestic crises. He did spur economic growth by cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans. But issues like the minimum wage, civil rights legislation, health insurance, and urban crime and poverty seemed like a distraction from the growing Soviet menace. Thus President Kennedy embarked on an arms build-up that far surpassed in costs anything Dwight D. Eisenhower had incurred during his two terms as president.
Professor Isserman left the audience with the tantalizing counterfactual that had Richard Nixon won the presidency, he would have been carried by the same domestic waves as Kennedy, perhaps toward a similar result. Had he won the Election of 1960, Richard Nixon might have gone down in history as the author of landmark civil rights legislation.