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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas