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President Richard M. Nixon: Campaign against Kennedy

About the 1960 campaign against John F. Kennedy that President Richard M. Nixon ran and lost, possibly due to a series of debates.

By the beginning of 1959, it was clear that despite Eisenhower's distaste for him, Nixon would be virtually unopposed in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1960. Looking ahead to a hard fight against the Democrats, Nixon was eager to enhance his reputation as a major statesman so he and his staff came up with the idea of taking a trip to the Soviet Union. When this plan was discussed with officials in the State Dept., their enthusiasm was well under control. Nixon insisted, however, and he was finally granted permission to make the trip so long as it was clearly understood that the purpose of the visit was purely "ceremonial." Nixon's chief responsibility in Russia was to open a U.S. exhibition in a Moscow park. But while touring the grounds of the exhibit (including an American model kitchen) Nixon couldn't resist the opportunity to join Soviet Premier Khrushchev in a shouting match in front of the television cameras and the world press. Naturally, the subject was the relative strength of the U.S. v. the U.S.S.R. "Now we were going at it toe-to-toe," Nixon later recalled in his book Six Crises. "To some, it may have looked as though we had both lost our tempers." He was right--that was exactly how it looked. "But," Nixon insisted, "exactly the opposite was true. I had full and complete control of my temper and was aware of it. I knew the value of keeping cool in a crisis." Nonetheless, it was Khrushchev who got off the best lines of the day. He told Nixon: "You don't know anything about communism--except fear." Throwing an arm over a nearby smiling worker, Khrushchev asked, "Does this man look like a slave laborer?" Despite the contents of the "kitchen debate," the American press felt obliged to report a Nixon "victory"--after all, the Vice-President was representing the U.S. Soon after Nixon came home, his poll ratings soared, and he entered the campaign as the heavy favorite against Sen. John Kennedy.

Nixon's inept campaigning, however, soon managed to turn the tide. As one of his aides confessed after Nixon's defeat: "Dick didn't lose this election. Dick blew this election." One of his problems was physical. While getting out of his car, Nixon had banged his knee so hard against the door that he had to be hospitalized in the middle of the campaign. When he managed to crack the same kneecap again, in exactly the same way, one of the reporters assigned to him could no longer hold back. "My God, he's trying to kill himself," he said. This 2nd injury came on the very morning of Nixon's 1st "Great Debate" with Kennedy. One of the reasons that Nixon looked drawn and haggard on the broadcast that evening was that his bad knee gave him almost constant pain. The debate itself-which he had agreed to in the foolhardy belief that he could humiliate Kennedy-was Nixon's biggest setback. His campaign never fully recovered its momentum, and Nixon, in Murray Kempton's words, ended his election drive "wandering limply and wetly about the American heartland begging votes on the excuse that he had been too poor to have a pony when he was a boy." Nevertheless, the final result was so tantalizingly close that Nixon tortured himself with the thought that any one of his minor mistakes might have meant the crucial difference between victory and defeat.

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