Monday, January 17, 2011

Politicians’ Morality, Then and Now

Mark Feldstein has an article in today’s Washington Post alleging that John Kennedy owed his election over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election to dirty tricks. You’ve probably already heard about allegations that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Daley had stuffed the ballot boxes, handing Kennedy two states, Texas and Illinois, that he hadn’t really won. As far as I know, those allegations remain unproven, but there’s ample evidence that Nixon believed them.

Feldstein’s telling us that there’s more to the story of corruption on the part of Kennedy operatives. On his telling, what really did Nixon in was the revelation a few days before the 1960 election that he’d secretly received $205,000 from Howard Hughes during the 1950s. The Kennedy campaign had gotten hold of that information, according to Feldstein, through an illegal break-in into the office of Hughes's accountant and fed it to Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson with the understanding that they’d sit on it until just before the election to maximize the damage its publication would do to Nixon’s election prospects. That, Feldstein says, is where Nixon got the idea for his own political dirty tricks, culminating in the Watergate break-in twelve years later:
“Fifty years ago next week, Richard Nixon stood uncomfortably on the Capitol's inaugural platform and watched his rival John F. Kennedy being sworn in as president. ‘We won’ the election, Nixon fumed, ‘but they stole it from us.’

“Indeed, the dirty tricks that helped defeat Nixon were more devious than merely the ballot-stuffing of political lore. In one of the least-known chapters of 20th-century political history, Kennedy operatives secretly paid off an informant and set in motion a Watergate-like burglary that sabotaged Nixon's campaign on the eve of the election. . . .

“Nixon always believed he was the true winner of the 1960 campaign. He called the Kennedys ‘the most ruthless group of political operators ever mobilized’ and said they ‘approached campaign dirty tricks with a roguish relish’ that ‘overcame the critical faculties of many reporters.’

“Indeed, the mysterious break-in to recover Nixon's incriminating financial documents convinced him that such burglaries were standard practice in national politics. Nixon vowed that he would never be caught unprepared again, and he ultimately established his own corps of hard-nosed operatives to carry out espionage and sabotage, which culminated in the botched break-in a dozen years later at the Watergate office of the Democratic Party.”
Feldstein’s story is too good to check. What does it tell us, if it’s true, about the evolution of the morality of presidential candidates over the last fifty years?

Well for one thing, it suggests that presidential politicking used to be a lot less civilized than it is today. I don’t think I’m being naïve in believing that the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns wouldn’t have dreamed of being an accessory to an illegal break-in. And even if they would, I'd like to think that they probably couldn’t have gotten reputable journalists to do their bidding the way Pearson and Anderson allegedly did Kennedy’s. McCain and Obama were playing electoral wiffle ball next to Kennedy and Nixon’s hardball.

The immorality of 1960s presidential politics is all the more impressive when you consider what Nixon’s indignation at the Kennedys was about. There’s no indication from Feldstein that Nixon ever felt even a pang of remorse having taken Howard Hughes’s money. Apparently, Nixon thought doing that was perfectly consistent with his being an upright politician. But he apparently couldn’t get over the fact that the Kennedys had resorted to burglary to bring his incriminating relationship with Hughes to the public's attention.  That, Nixon thought, was morally outrageous!

There’s another side, however, to the same coin. Kennedy and Nixon might have been ready, clandestinely, to cut a lot more ethical corners than their modern counterparts. When it comes to public professions of reverence for the legitimacy of apparently democratic elections, today’s politicians make Kennedy and Nixon look like choir boys.

Nixon's cut-throat partisanship was legendary. Whether or not he learned the dark art of political dirty tricks from Kennedy, Watergate would epitomize his readiness to subvert democratic processes for partisan ends. Yet even Nixon was unwilling, at least publicly, to contest the 1960 election results. Granted, he couldn’t have had much to say about the illegal break-in because the information about his relationship with Hughes in the pilfered files was apparently true.

Yet the sincere conviction that Kennedy had violated the customary ground rules of presidential politics would have given Nixon all the more reason to contest the election based on allegations that Kennedy operatives had stuffed the ballot boxes in Texas and Illinois. That's election fraud under anybody's definition. 

Historians dispute whether Nixon kept quiet, as his champions have claimed, out of a genuinely public-spirited reluctance to provoke a constitutional crisis, or merely for the sake of appearances, while Republican operatives contested the election results under the radar. For our purposes, his motives matter less than the fact that he acted in a political culture in which contesting the results of an apparently democratic election carried enough of a stigma to make even a politician notoriously inclined to cut ethical corners think twice.  Whatever he thought privately, Nixon didn't want to seen impugning the legitimacy of the Kennedy presidency.

Can you imagine politicians thinking twice about impugning the legitimacy of a president from the other party today, even out of feigned respect for democratic processes?


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article by Feldstein. It is always good to take today's political climate and compare it to historical references. Good post.

Lone Wolf said...

You suggest an interesting tradeoff. Compared to politicians of the Nixon-Kennedy era, modern politicians are less inclined actually to subvert the political process, but more inclined to claim that other people have subverted it. That means that presidents are likely actually to be more legitimate, but likely to be regarded as being less legitimate. I'm trying to figure out whether, on balance, that's progress.

Prof. Mark Feldstein said...

One of the problems with trying to boil down a complex subject into a 700-word op-ed is the inevitable loss of nuance and context. I think if you read my new book, "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture," which was adapted from my book, you'll discover that it makes many of the same points you do, and then some.

Prof. Mark Feldstein

Anonymous said...

One of the problems of reading a whole book is that it takes so long. Not having time for nuance and context, I appreciate a good 700 word op-ed. Thanks.