October 31, 2021

The Making of the President 1960 (1963)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Mel Stuart
Stars: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey

What it's about. Based on Theodore H. White's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the 1960 U.S. presidential election. White also wrote the screenplay. David L. Wolper produced the film, dominated by archive footage from the campaign. There are no talking heads. Mel Stuart is credited as both director and producer.

Elmer Bernstein is credited with the soundtrack, which won one of the film's four Emmy Awards. Other Emmys were in the categories of best documentary, best editing, and Program of the Year. The latter Emmy went to television network ABC, which initially broadcast the documentary.

A narrator is omnipresent. His identity is uncredited, but he sounds much like John Facenda, whose ingratiatingly gravelly and portentous voice can be heard on countless NFL Films documentaries from the 1960s and 1970s.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Kennedy won the 1960 election. The documentary, though, does not focus exclusively on Kennedy. It covers the entire Democratic and GOP campaigns. Nixon was the GOP shoo=in all along, while Kennedy, youthful, Catholic, immensely wealthy, charismatic but untested on the national scene, obtained the Democratic nomination with greater difficulty.

1960 was noteworthy as the first year in which primaries became important. Before that, candidates were chosen at the summer party conventions. But in 1960, the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries eliminated Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey in favor of Kennedy, who had to demonstrate that he could get Protestant votes against a Protestant opponent. The wins gave Kennedy strong momentum into the Democratic convention, but he had to withstand intense lobbying from Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson proponents to secure a narrow fist ballot majority.

Nixon was initially favored over Kennedy. He was the Vice President of popular President Dwight Eisenhower, and had the greater foreign policy experience. For a while, Nixon was hamstrung by party infighting between liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. That was resolved in favor of Rockefeller. Rockefeller turned down Nixon's offer as Vice Presidential nominee. Nixon then chose respected but uninspiring U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts.

We learn that Nixon injured his knee against a car door while campaigning in Greensboro, North Carolina. It became infected, and Nixon ended up in the hospital for two weeks. This interfered with his acceptance speech pledge of making a campaign stop in all 50 states. In the fall, there were four televised debates between Nixon and Kennedy, another first for the 1960 campaign. The debates garnered huge ratings, and polls indicated that they were effectively won by Kennedy.

Black leader Marin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Georgia in October for his civil rights demonstrations, and sentenced to four months of hard labor. Kennedy compelled Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver, a fellow Democrat, to push for King's release. This ensured that blacks would vote for Kennedy, despite the Democratic Party's enforcement of Jim Crow policies throughout the South.

Despite greater public enthusiasm over Kennedy, election night turned out to be a nail biter. It was not until after 5AM ET that Kennedy was proclaimed winner by the media. Nixon won more states (26 to 22, 2 states were won by Harry F. Byrd's Jim Crow slate) and dominated the states west of the Missouri river. Nixon also won Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennesee, but Kennedy won most Southern states and several key Midwestern and New England states. Kennedy's popular vote margin was the narrowest of the 20th century, 112K out of nearly 70M votes.

Kennedy was assassinated during the documentary post-production. Johnson became President and easily defeated Goldwater in 1964. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee in both 1952 and 1956, died unexpectedly in 1965, after serving four years as U.N. Ambassador. Nixon eventually made a political comeback, defeating Humphrey in the 1968 election. The Watergate scandal forced his resignation in 1974. Gerald Ford became President, and named Nelson Rockefeller his Vice President.

Theodore White wrote additional Making of the President books in 1964, 1968, and 1972. The 1964 and 1968 books also became documentary films directed by Mel Stuart.

How others will see it. The Wolper-Stuart film was prestigious for ABC, but today commands minimal interest. Even political junkies have moved on to more recent campaigns. At imdb.com, The Making of the President 1960 has a high user rating of 7.5 out of 10, but only 30 user votes. There are no user reviews. It is essential for political historians, but Joe Sixpack would rather watch action dramas, while his girlfriend would rather see a romantic comedy. Alas, we are not an intelligent people.

How I felt about it. It is curious that the documentary does not cover Kennedy's selection of Johnson as the Vice Presidential nominee, probably because no film footage is available of the hotel suite discussions on the topic at the Los Angeles Democratic Convention. Johnson was Senate Majority Leader and from a larger state (Texas) than Senator Stuart Symington (Missouri). Kennedy's brother Robert reportedly preferred Symington.

Politically, Nixon and Kennedy were not far apart. This would not be the case in 1964, when liberal Great Society proponent Lyndon Johnson competed against conservative Barry Goldwater. In 1960, nobody knew that Nixon, if elected President, would abuse his office to sabotage political opponents, or that Kennedy had greater interest in bedding mistresses than in public policy. Kennedy was much touted as the author of "Profiles of Courage", but the book was ghost-written by his speechwriter Ted Sorenson, and it won the Pulitzer Prize only due to extensive behind-the-scenes lobbying by Kennedy's father. Politics always fulfills the famous quote by Otto von Bismarck that "laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made."