Election of 1960: Kennedy Becomes First Catholic President

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The election of 1960 pitted two veterans of World War II against each other in the campaign for the presidency. Richard M. Nixon had served as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president since 1953 and had no opposition for the nomination by the time of the 1960 Republican convention in Chicago in late July. Senator Barry Goldwater declined to oppose him, but nevertheless called on conservatives to take back the party, a harbinger of 1964. Nixon's vice-presidential candidate was Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, who resigned his appointment as ambassador to the United Nations to campaign with Nixon.

The Democratic nomination was not as automatic. Before the 1960 Democratic convention opened in Los Angeles in late August, two opponents offered themselves as alternatives to Kennedy. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas was supported mostly in the South, and Adlai E. Stevenson was popular within the liberal wing. Johnson challenged Kennedy to a televised debate, but was unable to increase his delegate support. Stevenson's personal popularity was offset by his devastating losses in the two previous elections. Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot.

Kennedy then made the unexpected move of offering the vice-presidency to LBJ. It's not clear that he actually expected Johnson to accept, but Johnson did accept and created a balanced Democratic ticket.

During the campaign, questions were raised about Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith. Matters came to a head when a group of Protestant clergymen in Houston issued a statement that suggested that Kennedy would be under the influence of the Pope. He responded in an address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, in which he said, in part:

"If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I'd tried my best and was fairly judged.

"But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.

"But if, on the other hand, I should win this election, then I shall devote every effort of mind and spirit to fulfilling the oath of the Presidency -- practically identical, I might add, with the oath I have taken for 14 years in the Congress. For without reservation, I can, 'solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution -- so help me God.' "

Nixon and Kennedy took part in a televised debate, the first between presidential candidates. Kennedy appeared more at ease and Nixon, perhaps due to inadequate makeup, seemed haggard. Given the narrow margin of Kennedy's victory on election day, November 8, 1960, may have been due to the debate.

Election of 1960
Candidates
Party Electoral
Vote
Popular
Vote
John F. Kennedy (MA)
Lyndon B. Johnson (TX)
Democratic 303 34,227,096
Richard M. Nixon (CA)
Henry Cabot Lodge (MA)
Republican 219 34,107,646
Harry F. Byrd (VA)
J. Strom Thurmond (SC)
Barry M. Goldwater (AZ)
Democratic 15
14*
1
116,248

*Thurmond and Goldwater were vice-presidential candidates. The former received six votes from Alabama and eight from Mississippi; the latter, a Republican, received his vote from Oklahoma.

Kennedy's victory did not provide coattails for the rest of the Democratic candidates. The Democrats large majority in the U.S. Senate was maintained but actually shrank by one to 64-36. In the House of Representatives, the 1960 election left the Democrats 21 seats behind where they had been, although still leading with a 262 to 175 advantage.


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