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Vol.26, No. 10 Nov. 20, 2000

Graduate Student Finds Nixon Was “Ungracious” in ’60

By Jason Hollander

Six years after his death, Richard M. Nixon is at the center of a brand new debate, this one prompted by a Graduate School of Arts and Sciences doctoral student in history. Armed with facts unearthed using Butler Library’s microfilm room, David Greenberg has single-handedly dispelled a 40-year-old assumption regarding, perhaps, the most publicly recognized “honorable” act of Nixon’s political career.

Controversies surrounding the 2000 presidential election have brought an onslaught of comparisons to the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Nixon, as both contests proved close enough to inspire recounting votes and cries of foul play. However, while Vice President Al Gore readily asserted his support and desire for recounting, Nixon, the loser in ’60, conceded only one day after the election, citing the fear of creating a “constitutional crisis.”

Did Nixon really take the high road? That depends on your view of history. True, he did publicly concede (an act not legally binding), but Greenberg has proof that behind the scenes, Nixon’s closest allies were waging war.

Three days after the election, “the Republican Party launched an attack to try to overturn the election,” says Greenberg. He notes that Kentucky Senator Thruston B. Morton, the GOP’s national chairman, initiated requests for recounts or investigations in 11 states. Fueled by rumors of fraud in Illinois and Texas, the Republicans began an aggressive legal campaign that lasted until the Electoral College finally certified Kennedy’s win on Dec. 19, 1960.

Material acquired by Greenberg reveals the creation of a Chicago-area Nixon Recount Committee, which was encouraged by close Nixon aide Peter Flanigan. In another case, he says, two of Nixon’s intimates “sent agents to conduct ‘field checks’ in eight of the eleven battlegrounds.” Curious behavior for those employed by a man who had already conceded the election.

Greenberg, whose doctoral dissertation, “Nixon’s Shadow: Democracy and Authenticity in Postwar America,” will be published by W.W. Norton, was not surprised by his findings. The Whiting Fellow says we merely need to pull back the political curtain; the specter of Nixon, he says, seems always to be lurking.

“Whenever you find a controversy in the post-war era, whether it’s the Red Scare, the Cold War, Vietnam or Watergate, Nixon is there,” Greenberg says. “And I think that’s remained true even after his death. He’s never far from the scene of political controversy.”

Back in October, long before the American public knew what Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris looked like and before the term “pregnant chad” had become part of people’s vocabulary, Greenberg was already conducting research on the aftermath of the 1960 vote. “It seemed like a good story to look into,” he says. “It really was a coincidence that I happened on research that would become so relevant after this year’s election.”

A former managing editor for The New Republic, Greenberg first revealed his findings in his weekly column, “History Lesson,” which he writes for the online magazine, Slate. Shortly after it hit the Web site, his phone started ringing. He expanded on the research in an op-ed piece for The Los Angeles Times, which then became the subject of a short article in the New Yorker and earned mention in The Wall Street Journal. A request to appear on NBC’s Nightly News proved Greenberg had hit a nerve, uncovering a truth that some would rather not have discovered.

The example of Nixon doing something seemingly noble, conceding for the national good, was often a source of balance for those who criticized him. “For many historians and reporters, it allowed them to show they’re not just reflexive Nixon haters and Kennedy worshippers. Here was a case where [they thought] Nixon acted honorably,” says Greenberg. “Maybe they should’ve trusted their original judgement.”

Greenberg discovered much of his information in articles that appeared on the front page of The New York Times from November and December of 1960. Even though information about the 1960 recounts was easily accessible, Greenberg says that journalists do not normally do their own historical research. “We all tend to rely, as we often have to, on other people’s research,” he says. “Most reporters just pluck reliable Nixon and Kennedy books off the shelf.”

Can Gore learn anything from Nixon’s post-election political spin? “It’s rare that you have concrete lessons that can be extracted from one situation,” says Greenberg. “We can usually learn more from differences in historical situations than we can from surface similarities.” However, Greenberg notes that Gore, whether he realized it or not, did end up following Nixon’s lead by refusing “to go gentlly into the night.”