They Wouldn’t Dare

Next week, I’m reviewing Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s new memoir, Against All Odds. But this week I’m researching former Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy’s political megahit, Profiles in Courage, and I just came across a great essay in the December 1961 issue of Harper’s. In “The Cult of Personality Comes to the White House,” William G. Carleton spends most of his energy diagnosing Kennedy’s “personalization of the Presidency” — a trick used by just about every politician today, including Scott Brown. But Carleton also includes the following riff on America’s shared fear of close elections, a riff that, today, seems to come not just from another era but another nation:

Unlike the nineteenth century, most Presidential elections in the twentieth century have been landslides, generally in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Only three, 1916, 1948, and 1960, have been close — and the election of 1960 would probably alsohave been decisive for Kennedy but for the strength of the “No Popery” sentiment. It is actually difficult to have a close election today because of our continuing crisis psychology and the way the national media both reflect and help mold a national mood. (It is a curious fact that in a Republican year the major newspapers and magazines mirror the attitudes of their owners and publishers while in a Democratic year they reflect the views of their working reporters, correspondents, commentators, and columnists.) The nation now expects and wants a decisive Presidential election; it feels uncomfortable when the outcome is close. Because of our fear of an uncertain interregnum in time of peril and our self-consciousness in the face of a watching world, a contested Presidential election would be intolerable. For these reasons the Republicans in 1960 did not dare carry out the threat of recounts in the close states; similarly the Dixiecrats quailed at the prospect of actually exploiting the potential deadlock in the Electoral College, which they had so long awaited.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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