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.