Power never sleeps. Those with power usually want more and will do just about anything to get it. Beginning in the 1930s, Joseph Kennedy became one of America’s most powerful men. His fabulous wealth was made through shrewd investing, cornering the rum market, and producing Hollywood movies. His activities created connections with other powerful Americans in the worlds of finance, politics, entertainment, unions, and organized crime. Power, of course, is useless if not employed. In 1960, Kennedy used his power to get his son, John, elected president.
John F. Kennedy was, as they still say in his native Boston, wicked smart. He was also handsome, charismatic, a persuasive speaker, a war hero, and a U.S. Senator. But he was Catholic when that was two-and-a-half strikes against him in most parts of the country. He would also be running against Richard Nixon. He was also smart, a tenacious worker, rapaciously ambitious, and was completing his second term as vice president for the popular Dwight D. Eisenhower. The nomination race would be close and the presidential race closer. Joseph Kennedy knew his son could lose and, for him, that was simply unacceptable.
Among Kennedy’s investments was his 1945 purchase of Merchandise Mart; a building in Chicago that housed 13 warehouses. It allowed Kennedy to control the sale of goods, primarily those related to building trades, around much of the country. The building itself was the largest in the United States, so big that until 1988 it had its own zip code. His control of Merchandise Mart had led to interactions with unions and through them organized crime figures which, at the time, controlled union membership and union’s massive pension funds.
In the fall of 1959, with the nomination campaign underway and not going particularly well, Kennedy met at his Hyannis Port compound with singer Frank Sinatra. He asked Sinatra to meet with organized crime figure Sam Giancana and persuade him to support his son. Giancana had grown from an Al Capone hitman to become one of America’s most powerful organized crime figures. He agreed to help get Kennedy elected if John and Robert would end their determination to break organized crime syndicates and jail its leaders. He also wanted Fidel Castro gone and the nationalized Cuban casinos returned to their previous owners, one of whom was him. Joseph Kennedy agreed. The fix was in.
In early 1960, with John Kennedy still seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination, mob and union money began pouring into the campaign. Union leaders began voicing support and union rank and file began volunteering in overwhelming numbers. The presidential campaign brought more union and mob money and support.
Election night is a media invention. For decades, no one expected all votes to be counted and a winner declared on election day. Television invented the myth that the winner must be announced quickly, hopefully in prime time, to satisfy sponsors who paid extra for election night ads. They were disappointed in November 1960. State after state was announced for Nixon and Kennedy with many too close to call. Most Americans and even the two candidates finally went to bed not knowing who the next president would be.
The next morning, Kennedy’s young daughter Caroline leapt into his bed and said, “Good Morning Mr. President.” That is how he found out that he had won. But how had he won?
In 1977, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee revealed that on election night, Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard Daly, had telephoned Kennedy and said, “Mr. President, with a little bit of luck and the help of a few close friends, you’re going to win Illinois.” Kennedy took Illinois and its 27 Electoral College votes by fewer than 9, 400 votes. It was revealed that a frankly unbelievable 89% of Illinois voters had cast ballots. While Nixon had won many of the rural counties, those victories were overwhelmed by Kennedy having won four times his predicted plurality in Chicago. Kennedy squeaked similar victories due to other strong union cities coming his way that swung other states such as Nevada, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
Final tallies had Kennedy win 303 to Nixon’s 219 Electoral College votes. However, out of 63 million votes cast, Kennedy won only 118,000 more votes than Nixon. Nixon and just about everyone else on the inside of the two campaigns knew what had happened. In some Illinois precincts, for example, more people voted for Kennedy than there were people. But Nixon later wrote in his memoirs that if he had challenged the results he would be branded a sore loser and his political career would be over. Nixon did the honourable thing – he conceded.
Power still loves power. The difference between 1960 and 2020 is that power no longer seeks the shadows. It took 20 years to unearth all that corrupted the 1960 election. Now, we are seeing naked power operating before our eyes. We are seeing corruption without apology. We are seeing corrupt power excused and encouraged by a television network and social media platforms supportive of its means and ends. We are seeing heavily armed people incited to protect the power that overtly robs them of all they think they are defending.
All of this means that while Kennedy stole the 1960 election, compared to today, that theft was child’s play.
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