Alistair Cooke: “The final word came in that Kennedy had made it by a cat’s whisker”

As America votes, we look back at the great broadcaster's Letter From America on the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon cliffhanger


Well, as early as ten o’clock last Tuesday night, even the most fanatical lover of American presidential politics had no reason to stay up.


There was never much suspense in this year’s election anyway, but even if there had been, the computer has effectively transformed it. I am not up on my electronics at the moment and I am not sure whether transformed is the word, but the computers go to work ridiculously early on the returns from the crucial states, even when there may be no more than a trace of one per cent of the total votes in.

And these electronic brains rumble and calculate and chatter to themselves, and I suppose if you are a computer programmer, you can get a kick out of feeding in that one per cent and waiting for the machine to deliver its judgement. But in no time the electronic brain comes through, and declares the winner. And then you wait, for the remaining 99 per cent of the vote to come in to confirm the calculation of the computers. Which they almost invariably do.

Some computer employers and employees may complain that I have put the date when these spoilsports went to work far too late – 1964. But I am thinking of the election of 1960 when, for several hours the computers were just as human as the rest of us. That Kennedy night was the last cliffhanger that I remember. We usually have in a dozen of our closest friends for an election night party very much the way in the old days the late Gordon Selfridge used to throw on the roof of his store an election party for his 3,000 closest friends.

Since 1952, most of those November evenings have turned into a wake for the Democrats present. So it was a slightly more sober bunch of revellers who gathered in our apartment in November 1960. By ten o’clock it was looking bad for Kennedy, and by eleven o’clock it was looking worse; so much so, I remember, that most people simply left the television and left it on in my study and retired to have a consoling swig and some funeral baked meats. A few people even went home, their heads down, as if off to the graveyard.

One man, an actor who knew nothing about politics, stayed in the study glaring at the box. He came diffidently in on the wake at one point and said, “Pardon me, I may be crazy but I think something is happening.” “What,” said the tolerant experts, “is happening?” “Well,” he said, “Come and look at these figures.” We went back and the totals were going back into the 40-50 millions and Kennedy and Nixon were apart by only a few thousand. The computers had come through earlier with a firm tick in the margin for Nixon, then they apologised and withdrew it.
First, Kennedy went on top and then Nixon, and Nixon stayed there through the night. But, by a cat’s whisker, not till well into the dawn, not till we had all of California and Hawaii, and soldiers’ votes from Europe, and other absentees, did the final word come in that Kennedy had made it – by another cat’s whisker. I am away from the books, but it was no more than 60,000 votes in 60 million. And the Republicans drove themselves into ulcers for the next few weeks, figuring that if a few thousand – or even a few hundred – votes had been switched here in Illinois and Texas and Ohio, Nixon would have been president.

This is a significant memory, and it was an Englishman who anticipated its present significance better than anybody else and he was Mr Richard Crossman [a Labour MP]. He examined the evidence and saw that the Kennedys – the brothers, the family and all the influence and money they could bring to bear – had exerted themselves to the last gasp in practically every one of the 3,000-odd counties of the States.

No campaign was ever so thorough, no candidate ever exhausted himself so carefully, so scrutinised the map of the United States as a political battleground, and dashed off so bravely to reinforce an attack here, plug a gap there, hold a retreat in some other place. If the country had been strongly inclined to Kennedy, little of this would have been necessary. Nixon rushed around every one of the 50 states but it was much of a slapdash, old-fashioned, barn-storming expedition. Unlike the Kennedys, he didn’t know half so well where he was strong, where he was fatally weak. And yet Kennedy won, by an eyelash.

What this proved, which only Mr Crossman had the wit to see, was that in 1960 America was hell-bent for Nixon, and just failed to get him. I say the memory of that campaign is significant now, because it shows a turn in American majority opinion which most people are saying has just happened.

It may well be that the historians will look back and say that [despite Kennedy’s victory] the great Roosevelt coalition – of labour, the ethnic groups, the liberals, the big cities – began to come apart in 1960.


In Alistair Cooke’s Footsteps in on BBC iPlayer