Rivalry and Friendship

A Review of Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America
by Christopher Matthews

Author Biography

Christopher Matthews worked as a print journalist for 15 years, 13 years for the “San Francisco Examiner” and two years for the “San Francisco Chronicle.” He has worked as a presidential speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, an aide to House Speaker Tip O’Neill and as a staff for Senators Frank Moss and Edmund Muskie in the U.S. Senate. He is the author of Hardball.

A friendship that once crossed partisan barriers in “one of those curious incidences of history” was what Richard Milhous Nixon and John Fitzgerald Kennedy shared during the post-WWII era.1 The two men stood on opposite poles of the partisan built, but similar political ideologies. Nixon once commented on his queer friendship with Kennedy: “He and I shared the dubious distinction of sitting at the opposite ends of the committee table like a pair of unmatched bookends.”2

In the section of the book titled “Students,” the author illustrated the diverse personalities and social status of Kennedy and Nixon which shaped them to be the later distinguishing politicians. Nixon spent most of his childhood around his parents’ grocery store. Not able to go to Harvard because of financial difficulties, the middle-class representative used his class resentment of the elitist and talented as the fuel for his career in politics and as the basis upon which he gained support. At Whittier College in California, Nixon established himself as the leader of the Orthogonians, a term he coined as the name of a new campus club representing a social status opposite to that of the “Franklins,” who were the better-dressed, and more sophisticated students. On the other hand, Kennedy, the oldest son of former U.S. ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, grew up with an undeniably wealthy background that supported him through out his life, from the exclusive Choate School to Harvard and to the political battlefields. In high school, Kennedy was the head of the pranksters, and the President of the club of the “Muckers,” students who aimed at destroying the old Choate school order by conducting hoaxes. However, while his actions were detested by the school authorities, the Choate headmaster, St. John, who had been irritated by Kennedy’s jaunt that interrupted a major school social event, admitted that “in any school he would have gotten away with things just on his smile. He was…very lovable.”3 The enchanting charm and thus the gifted leadership of the young Kennedy had helped him to win a Choate contest of the senior who was “most likely to succeed.”4 The divergent class status represented by Nixon and Kennedy at school and in the society would lead them onto the same path of vocation.

The first chapter of the book exhibits how the emotional impact World War II had on the Americans assisted Nixon and Kennedy, helping them succeed in their earliest campaign into the House. Both of the young politicians entered into Congress in 1946 and in reaction to the American fears from the Second Great War, they advocated the same policy of containment of communism—the disease that affected both Germany and Soviet Union. Nixon raged against Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, coming from one of the millions of families that did not benefit from its programs, and flamed with the public’s fear of the spreading of communism from the dreaded Soviet Union. Upon Herman Perry’s invitation to run for Congress on the 1946 Republican Ticket, Nixon, exultant and determined, hired a Beverly Hills Public Relations man, Murray Chotiner, to scheme for his political success through the media. The first step Nixon took was an attack on the Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis, accusing him of being supported by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had communist affiliations. Nixon’s articulate debate with Voorhis won him his seat in the Congress of California. Kennedy, calling himself a “fighting conservative,” secreted “private contempt for the social and economic policies of the New Deal,” which had ended capitalism in the U.S., and, as the Californian candidate, he brought forth awareness of the ruthlessness of Soviet Russia and his wish to alienate it.5 One Republican and the other Democratic with diverse backgrounds but similar policies, the two men strangely developed a friendship of admiration and considerable trusts as new members of Congress.

Chapters two to eight describe the development of the Kennedy-Nixon friendship from 1947 to 1960. Although they were a strange match—since they belonged to different backgrounds, political parties, and social esteems among their peers—Kennedy and Nixon maintained their close tie until their first campaign for presidency. Their first encounter took place after the swearing-in ceremony at the National Press Club that held a reception for Congressmen who had served in the war. Kennedy was impressed by Nixon’s victory over the previously widely approved Voorhis. Nixon was charmed by the twenty-nine-year-old Kennedy’s natural friendliness that had the magic “to convince someone he liked him.”6 As only a freshman in Congress, Nixon successfully gained prestige and influence for himself by winning a second posting on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Kennedy’s most famous effort during the time was most likely to test out a communism advocate, Russ Nixon, who had once been Kennedy’s Harvard professor in economics. Later, Addison disease robbed Kennedy of a great amount of physical strength, and while he rested, Nixon worked toward catching a big-time politician who hid his communist identity—Alger Hiss, the man who had been at the Yalta Conference and had taken the position of Secretary-General of the founding United Nations (UN) conference in San Francisco. To the surprise of many, Nixon’s charge of the star politician of committing espionage was proven true by a series of HUAC hearings.

In the next decades, their precious connection would be altered by the era when public opinion became extremely dependent on the media, one factor that unfairly benefited the strikingly handsome Kennedy. In their identical struggle to power, soaked by feelings of fear and jealousy shared by both, the two would use any method— many infamous dirty tricks involved, to reach their dreams. Both campaigned for the election 1960, trying to maintain respect for each other at the same time. Starting in chapter nine, the story of the Kennedy-Nixon friendship becomes an account of intense competitions and enmity between the two. The elder Kennedy confided to Nixon that: “Dick, if my boy can’t make it, I’m for you.”7 On several social occasions, Kennedy refused to join in with the popular mockery of Nixon. He called Nixon the “victim of the worst press that ever hit a politician in this country.”8 In addition, Nixon refused to attack Kennedy at the start of the campaign, attempting to focus his attack on the Democratic left. Chapter ten illustrates the first Great Debate the two presidential candidates participated on September 26, 1960, a historical landmark of technological accomplishment and impact on politics. It was the first televised debate for political campaigning in America. The outcome of the debate for the Republican candidate proved to be a disaster. In 1960, nine in ten American families had a television set, so the majority of the Americans watched the televised debates between the two. Hospitalized while Kennedy was physically well and actively campaigning from town to town, Nixon looked like a bleak contrast of the lean, tanned and confident Kennedy, especially without the blend of shades specified for his televised appearance. Nixon’s ambitions “had become the sharpest possible prod to Kennedy’s own, for he had shown the country and Kennedy what a person of their generation could achieve.”9 The power and wealth of the Kennedy family and his own telegenic attractions won Kennedy widespread public admiration which led to his victory in 1960. After Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Nixon was able to win the next election. Ironically, Nixon’s second term was marked by his Watergate burglary scandal that eventually led to his resignation. The man who had waited and endured embittering battles—including a shameful loss of the 1962 race for Governor of California, now carried a greater shame to be the first U.S. president to resign, a choice he made before he was impeached. Nixon officially left the White House on August 8, 1976.

The author’s thesis states that the American society usually spots the glamour instead of foreign or domestic accomplishments of a politician. Kennedy’s political works included his partial commitment in the Bay of Pigs raid and the murder of the Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem; however, except for his Civil Rights Acts of 1964, he didn’t become a great influence in the condition of the American domestics. The illegal tapping system set up by Nixon in the Oval Office and his Executive Office Building hideaway tapping were incomparable to the actions of other politicians. As Nixon said, his administration “reduced the number of wiretaps by fifty percent”; “Robert Kennedy tapped the most when he was Attorney General.”10 Facing a determined Edward “Teddy” Kennedy, who was ready to take on the Republican president that had been an old rival of his brothers for a long period, Nixon was trapped and was found guilty of scheming the Watergate raid, during his campaign for a second term. He was elected based on the universal exultance of the Americans from the Declaration of Peace with Vietnam during the election. Even after Nixon had been elected, however, the charismatic air of the Kennedy family swirled the White House. John Kennedy’s elegance mesmerized the public and altered the people’s expectation of a leader. His glamour was effectively transferred to the public and lasted forever in the minds of the citizen. Consequently, having none of Kennedy’s original charms, Nixon felt hunted by the people’s slain “hero and presidential role model” who had “graced the White House and the city.”11

The author’s point of view on the relationship between Kennedy and Nixon is that an amiable friendship was challenged and eventually ruined by competitions in politics. The two men’s concurrent pursuit for presidency in 1960 symbolizes the effect craving of power can have upon men, which is well summarized by the famous Italian historian and political critic Machiavelli: “The end justifies the means.” In his campaign, Kennedy questioned the deeds of the Eisenhower administration which drew in Nixon, gained public appeal through television debates with his good looks and charms, and changed his campaigning ideologies from addressing the desires of the conservative whites to advocating the rights of the blacks by publicly supporting Martin Luther King Jr. with which “black America was being moved overnight to the Democratic side of the ballot, from the party of Lincoln to that of the Kennedy’s.”12 Nixon, lacking the good looks, charm, money and the allowed flexibility to alter policies due to concerns regarding established partisan stance, lost, and was embittered and furious at Kennedy for performing sneaky tasks such as conducting a meeting with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Allen Dules to get information on Eisenhower’s actions in Cuba. The glamorous Kennedy family left a “spellbound nation”; the favor the American citizens bestowed upon John F. Kennedy and his brothers’ political involvement after his assassination, made Nixon fear a “Kennedy ‘restoration.’”13

Matthews’s historiography has been given sufficient authentic sources that are evident in the various names cited in the book and, with an objective point of view, he reveals both positive and negative opinions given by his resources. The author was an aide to Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, a House speaker and a friend of Kennedy’s. The author’s many traces of Kennedy’s personality could have been provided by O’Neill. However, the author’s point of view is not biased based on one of his primary source’s information. He often mentions Nixon’s committed loyalty to his friendship with Kennedy and emphasizes the Nixon’s victimized sentiments because of his less vicious performance, compared to Kennedy, during their campaign. The author reveals equally the strengths and weaknesses and both the positive and negative sides to both politicians’ personalities. As one of his quotes in the book indicates, he could not believe Kennedy, the “skinny, pasty-faced kid was a candidate for anything!”14 He also knew of Kennedy’s infiltration with money of local people earlier in his campaign to enter the House of Representatives. The author’s view is thus unbiased.

According to Paul E. Lambert from “The Historian,” Matthew’s book is worthwhile to read because of its focus on the two young leaders of the Sixties. The friendship between Nixon and Kennedy lasted until “1956, when Kennedy’s White House ambitions led him to begin publicly criticizing Nixon.”15 Lambert praises Matthews’s use of dichotomy in the book. Though noting that Matthews, a “former press aid to Tip O’Neill and Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, is no professional historian,” the book should be noted because it “takes existing information and presents it in a thought-provoking comparison.”16

In “Presidential Studies Quarterly,” writer Dean J. Kotlowski criticizes that Matthews “concentrates on both of the men’s political careers rather than their youths or personal lives.”17 Matthews is best “at describing the early years of the Kennedy-Nixon relationship,” providing documents such as letters and notes corresponded between the two.18 However, the author’s biggest flaw lays when he tries to “prove that the Kennedy Nixon rivalry ‘marked and drove the era.'”19 Matthews utilizes exaggeration to describe the effectiveness of the Kennedy-Nixon debates about Cold War. Also, he oversimplifies history as he traces American military intervention in Vietnam to the Kennedy-Nixon rivalry. The critic states that, while “Kennedy occupied the White House, Nixon was hardly a threat to his foreign policy initiatives,” as opposed to the view Matthews provides in the book that Nixon had always been the sharpest prove to Kennedy.20

The author oversimplifies in his conclusion that the Sixties was shaped by the rivalry of the two men. Stating in the introduction of the book that, “More than either man, it was the rivalry itself that marked and drove the era,” Matthews establishes the primary purpose of the book, as indicated by its title, to show how the Kennedy-Nixon “shaped postwar America.”21 However, this is the part the book that lacks the most information. Overly concentrated on the changes of the two men’s relations, their policies, and the ironies of both of their lives, the book reads as a historical review of politicians that artfully observes the parallel ironic endings of both men’s political career, mysteriously, almost with satirical sentiments on life itself. Though beautifully written about the legacy of the two political giants, one died as he wished—quick—at the peak of his career and the other failed at his imitation of the previously successful opponents’ skills to protect his own administration by monitoring others illegally. This mistake of forgetting to address the main purpose of the book creates a notion that the work is truly just about the friendship and paralleling incidents in the lives of Kennedy and Nixon.

review by Eileen Mao

  1. Matthews, Christopher. Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 45.
  2. Matthews, Christopher 45.
  3. Matthews, Christopher 23.
  4. Matthews, Christopher 23.
  5. Matthews, Christopher 40.
  6. Matthews, Christopher 45.
  7. Matthews, Christopher 133.
  8. Matthews, Christopher 123.
  9. Matthews, Christopher 139.
  10. Matthews, Christopher 316.
  11. Matthews, Christopher 271.
  12. Matthews, Christopher 173.
  13. Matthews, Christopher 19.
  14. Matthews, Christopher 31.
  15. Lambert, Paul E. The Historian v60, n4,1998. 867
  16. Lambert, Paul E. 868.
  17. Kotlowski, Dean J. Presidential Studies Quarterly v27, n2,1997. 380
  18. Kotlowski, Dean J. 380.
  19. Kotlowski, Dean J. 381.
  20. Kotlowski, Dean J. 381.
  21. Matthews, Christopher 21.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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