All the presidents' mendacities

POLITICS: KENNEDY & NIXON: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America by Christopher Matthews Simon & Schuster pounds 16.99

In The afterglow of "Camelot" mythology, John F Kennedy still features as the good guy while his rival in the 1960 presidential election, Richard M Nixon, doubles as the bad and the ugly. Despite Henry Kissinger's confident assertion that history will judge the Nixon presidency favourably, there is as yet no sign of the sea-change that would erase the frightful memories of the 1972-74 Watergate crisis, which produced the first presidential resignation in American history. But was Kennedy really that good, or Nixon that bad? Although Christopher Matthews redresses the balance slightly in Nixon's favour, most of his revisionism is of the anti-Kennedy kind.

Both Kennedy and Nixon had a "good war" in the South Pacific and came to the House of Representatives as freshmen in 1946. Both, in the early 1950s, were Red-baiting reactionaries who endorsed the notorious Senator Joe McCarthy; possibly Nixon's backing was more ideological, while Kennedy's was tribal, Irish-Catholic.

But there the similarities ended. Nixon came from a humble Californian background and had received his legal training at the almost unknown Whittier College; Kennedy was an alumnus of Harvard and the LSE and the son of a fabulously wealthy man. Matthews portrays the Kennedy-Nixon rivalry as that between fortune's darling and an envious, supremely guileful pretender. He explicitly compares their political duel with that between Mozart and Salieri, which is perhaps an unwise contrast - not just because Mozart was a genius whereas Kennedy was a mediocre, over-hyped politician who happened to have the wealth of Croesus, but also because of the dark suspicions surrounding the death of each of the protagonists.

The converging careers of the two rivals brought them to the famous confrontation on television in 1960 - almost certainly the first time a presidential election was materially affected by the media. Matthew produces some interesting statistics which show the Republican Nixon running neck-and-neck with Kennedy during the crucial period between the end of the primaries and the November election. A poll on 16 August 1960 gave Nixon 47 per cent and his Democratic rival 47 per cent; a 30 August poll made it Nixon 47 per cent, Kennedy 48 per cent; on 44 September it was Nixon 47 per cent, Kennedy 46 per cent. Since nine-tenths of all Americans had a TV in 1960, the televised debates between the two hopefuls were widely perceived to be the make-or-break opportunity.

Although in dialectical terms Nixon was generally held to have won the last three of the four confrontations, the debate everyone remembered was the first one, where Nixon's five-o'clock shadow made him look like a B-picture heavy. Kennedy, by contrast, who had been in such poor health throughout the Fifties that he was twice given the last rites, had benefited from cortisone treatment and came across on the small screen as a matinee idol. Kennedy never let this impression fade. When Nixon accused him of being a "barefaced liar", JFK, with surprisingly Wildean wit, replied: "Having seen him in close-up - and make-up - for our television debates, I would never accuse Mr Nixon of being barefaced."

However, Matthews is sceptical that the famous TV debates really did decide the 1960 election. In a skilful analysis, he demonstrates that other factors weighed more: Kennedy's harvesting of the black vote after his overt support for Martin Luther King; Eisenhower's "too little, too late" 11th-hour support for Nixon; and the shameless way in which Kennedy, who knew the truth about lacklustre Soviet military technology, lied about an "alleged missile gap" - giving nuclear superiority to the Soviets - which Ike and his vice-president (Nixon) had allowed to develop. Even so, the result was one of the closest ever. Kennedy's share of the popular vote, at 49.7 per cent, just scraped past Nixon on 49.5, and it was only the vagaries of the voting system that converted this into a majority of 303-219 in the electoral college. As Kennedy won the key state of Illinois by a bare 8,000 votes after allegations of fraud, and narrowly took Texas after claims of irregularities by LBJ and his cronies, Nixon would have been within his rights to demand a recount. Ever afterwards, he maintained that the election had been stolen from him.

Matthews continues the story to Nixon's death and deals also with Bobby and Teddy Kennedy (his book should really have been titled "Nixon and the Kennedys"). He deplores the ruthless way the patriarch Joseph Kennedy used his vast wealth to steamroller any opposition to his sons. He claims that Nixon was led into the burglary of the Watergate building out of a paranoid fear that the Kennedys were out to get him and that he would have to confront Teddy in the 1972 election.

This is an absorbing book, punchily written, which will have an appeal far beyond the narrow circle of Washington buffs, Camelot cranks and Watergate freaks.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London