The fallacy of Nixon's graceful exit

In 1960, the GOP candidate fought hard behind the scenes to make sure the election wasn't stolen from him -- just as Al Gore should do.

Published November 10, 2000 8:15PM (EST)

One of the most oft-repeated myths in the aftermath of the current presidential election disputes is the claim that Vice President Al Gore should behave more like Richard Nixon, who is cited frequently for having graciously decided not to pursue legal remedies in response to possible voter fraud that might have cost him the 1960 election with John Kennedy. But the notion that Nixon graciously exited is just false.

The 1960 race was unquestionably close. Some states -- like California -- initially fell into Kennedy's electoral count, but were reversed almost two weeks later after absentee ballots were counted. But the core questions about the election centered on rumors of fraud, primarily in Illinois, where Democratic Mayor Richard Daley's powerful political machine controlled voter-heavy Chicago, and Texas, where vice presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson was a senator. Rumors of impropriety existed before the election. After the election, when Illinois went for Kennedy by fewer than 9,000 votes, and Texas by just over 40,000, Republicans cried foul.

Nixon was worried about how to challenge the vote and still not be branded in history as a "sore loser." Although he would later claim that President Eisenhower encouraged him to contest the election outcome, that was not true, as the outgoing president withdrew his support for any challenge within a day of the vote. Yet, contrary to modern memory, Nixon and his Republican allies still mounted a massive vote challenge. My own research into this issue has been independently confirmed by others, such as David Greenberg writing in Slate.

It is true that Nixon did quickly concede the election to Kennedy. And while he was careful not to put a public imprimatur on the concerted Republican effort to challenge the election results, he privately not only authorized it, but actively encouraged it.

A conservative journalist and close Nixon friend, Earl Mazo, of the New York Herald Tribune, launched a press frenzy over possible voter fraud. (He was later Nixon's official biographer.) And not only did Republican senators like Thruston Morton ask for recounts in 11 states just three days after the election, but Nixon aides Bob Finch and Len Hall personally did field checks of votes in almost a dozen states.

The Republicans obtained recounts, involved U.S. Attorneys and the FBI, and even impaneled grand juries in their quest to get a different election result. A slew of lawsuits were filed by Republicans, and unsuccessful appeals to state election commissions routinely followed. However, all their efforts failed to uncover any significant wrongdoing.

In Illinois, for instance, the final recount showed that Nixon's votes had been undercounted by 943 -- yet, in 40 percent of the rechecked precincts, it turned out that Nixon's vote had been overcounted. (Contrast this with Gore, whose vote total steadily climbed during the Florida recount.) Unhappy with those results, Republicans went to federal court, where their case was dismissed. They then appealed to the State Board of Elections, which also rejected their claims. It was not until Dec. 19 -- over a month after the election -- that the national Republican Party backed off its Illinois claims.

Similar results, and extended fights, took place in Texas and New Jersey among other states. In Hawaii, Republican efforts had the unintended result of reversing the state's electoral votes from Nixon to Kennedy.

Although Republicans continued to insist that Illinois and Texas had somehow figured out a way to cheat and still pass a recount, they never produced hard evidence of widespread impropriety. Yet, that was certainly not for lack of trying. For over a month, the Republican efforts were aggressive and widespread. That Nixon was clever enough to allow his aides and political friends to do the work on his behalf -- while officially seeming to remove himself from the fray -- should not let Americans have amnesia about what really happened in the wake of the 1960 vote.

If the current rallying cry of Republicans is that Al Gore should behave like Richard Nixon did in 1960, that is precisely what he is doing -- strongly making every effort to ensure that the final vote was fair and correct.

By Gerald Posner

Gerald Posner is the author of "Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK" and six other books.

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