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Jewish World Review Nov. 16 2000 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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A surprising winner emerges in the US election

The wrangling over America's presidency makes Richard Nixon's behaviour in Election 1960 look positively statesmanlike -- "As I look at the board here, while there are still some results still to come in, if the present trend continues Mr Kennedy - Senator Kennedy - will be the next president of the United States": Vice-President Richard Nixon, 12.15am, Wednesday November 9 1960.

Even without resolution in sight, America's stunning election has already changed US politics. Less than a week after the apparent split between the electoral college and popular votes, a movement to abolish the college is afoot, spearheaded by Senator-elect Hillary Clinton. One of the first acts of the new Congress will surely be to throw a few billions at the states to allow them to replace such anachronisms as Palm Beach County's "butterfly ballot".

Perhaps the most unforeseen of the changes is likely to be a revision of the record of Richard Nixon. In the minds of most Americans under 45, Mr Nixon is something of a caricature of immorality. This is so in part because Watergate is the signature event of modern political culture: no presidential election season is complete without a re-broadcast of the filmAll the President's Men.

But it is also because Mr Nixon has been perceived as among the most unrelentingly corrupt of leaders, the sort who undermine the very democratic process at every turn. In purging itself of Mr Nixon, the nation long assumed it had also purged itself of old-fashioned dirty tricks and entered a new era of non-partisan morality.

The heavily partisan grappling we are seeing this week disproves that myth. Suddenly both post-Watergate parties, with the Democrats in the lead, are scrambling to work the system. They are both fighting over the detritus of the election process - the "chads" from the punching of ballots in Palm Beach County. William Daley, Gore campaign chairman, has even said that "if the will of the people is to prevail, Al Gore should be awarded a victory", a shot at retroactively rewriting the rules to bypass the existing electoral college system.

Against this new backdrop, Tricky Dick's behaviour, at least on election eve, starts to look downright statesmanlike. Consider the tight 1960 election, in which John F Kennedy polled only two-tenths of a percentage point of the popular vote more than Mr Nixon. Both Democrats and Republicans today acknowledge that John FKennedy was helped over the top in Illinois by Mr Daley's father, Richard Daley, and his Cook County machine. Heavy irregularities were also reported in Texas, where Lyndon Johnson, Mr Kennedy's vice-presidential candidate, had his own apparatus. Mr Kennedy, unlike Messrs Bush and Gore today, maintained a vast lead in electoral college votes. But pro-Nixon electoral votes from heavily populated Illinois and Texas would have seriously eroded it. In a book on the topic, Earl Mazo, of the New York Herald Tribune, and Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar, even state that "without the electoral college votes of Texas and Illinois, Kennedy would have lost".

As the irregularities became clear through the evening, Senator Everett Dirksen urged Mr Nixon to ask for a re-count. Instead, the vice-president chose to bow to official reports, conceding in the morning. In his memoirs, Mr Nixon laid out his logic. "We had made a serious mistake in not having taken precautions against such a situation and it was too late now. A presidential re-count would take up to half a year, during which time the legitimacy of Kennedy's election would be in question. The effect could be devastating in America's foreign relations."

This might be dismissed as so much clever whitewash were it not for additional documentation from Mr Mazo. As he and Mr Hess recall, Mr Mazo chose to investigate the corruption in both states following Nixon's concession.

After a few articles had appeared, Mr Nixon called Mr Mazo in for a visit. "Those are interesting articles you are writing but no one steals the presidency of the United States," the vice-president told him. As Mr Mazo wrote: "I thought he might be kidding, but never was a man more deadly serious."

Ray Price, a Nixon strategist and speechwriter, adds a footnote. During election eve 1968, the Nixon team saw with trepidation that Illinois and Texas were again likely to determine the election. As the early morning hours passed and no word came from crucial Cook County, the GOP campaigners suspected that Boss Daley was holding back, waiting for suburban Chicago results so that he might know how many city ballots he had to deliver.

Come breakfast, there was still no announcement. John Mitchell, Mr Nixon's campaign manager, called Mike Wallace, the CBS anchor. Live on air, he challenged mayor Daley to report his votes, forcing him into a corner. By lunch, Mr Humphrey had conceded.

Mr Price, who penned the president's resignation speech, claims that the statesmanlike Nixon was also evident in Watergate. In 1974, he says, "when it became clear that it would be a protracted battle, Mr Nixon wanted to fight on but he knew that the best thing for the country was to resign".

On the election-stealing question, it is not clear that the Kennedy-Nixon race is truly analogous to the Gore-Bush one. Much as Mr Nixon's scribes and supporters may wish it were not so, it is hard to find evidence that he would have been the victor in an honest race in 1960.

The question of whether Mr Kennedy really stole the 1960 election deserves more consideration. Indeed, Texas papers spurred by the current news are already on the case. But what is already clear is that the Election 2000 wrangling tells us at least this: that Richard Nixon was not so consistent a conniver as he is often made out to have been and that America today is perfectly capable of being as partisan as it was in the bad old days of the smoke-filled back room.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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