Mom, Dad, and eleven siblings took the pulse of the nation in a never-to-be-repeated family presidential election poll, Vice President Nixon vs. Senator John F. Kennedy, in 1960.
Some electoral seasons, particularly contentious ones, bring me back to gentler times, and 1960 and the lure of Camelot seems as remote as Brigadoon this year. Ah, Nostalgia!
Forecasting the close election to come, the thirteen family members (at that time) initially split the vote six-and-one-half to six-and-one-half, as near to the national results as any professional poll. With apologies to any siblings who might prefer the secret ballot, what follows is my reporting of the poll for my eleventh grade English class.
So Went the Nation
January 10, 1961
The final results of the first official Comeaux Presidential Poll established Senator John F. Kennedy a seven and one-half to five and one-half favorite over Vice President Richard M. Nixon. The poll was limited to members of the Comeaux family, and, similar to national polls, it went right down to the wire, with Kennedy emerging the favorite just a few days before the election.
Four of the voters in or above junior high voted for Nixon, with the other two supporting Kennedy. But the basic test of Kennedy’s widespread public appeal came from the elementary school children.
Sixth-grader Christine and fourth-grader Paul voted for Nixon, increasing his lead to six to two. Then the tide suddenly shifted. The first indication of a change came when Carolyn, a sentimental third grader, voted for both candidates, tearfully suggesting that we could have two presidents.
Now the Kennedy camp delivered. Bill returned from his second grade class to report that he and the rest of his class basically shared their teacher’s political viewpoint, and had voted Kennedy a razor-thin edge of fifty (50) to three (3).
The other three ballots were cast by pre-schoolers. Francis voted for Kennedy, which was logical considering the fact that he now shows a remarkable resemblance to the pictures of six year old Kennedy. Four-year-old Patti had attended a children’s rally in connection with a Democratic Tea Party, and she became sold on the Democratic ticket. Her avid support for her candidates was revealed when she surprisingly and arrogantly interrupted a supper-table debate with the point-blank question, “And what about Johnson?” and by her persistent applause during Kennedy’s television speeches.
The most significant result of the poll was the fact that half-year old Mary made the right prediction, a fact certain to be included in her future autobiographies. The Kennedy forces, losing six and one-half to five and one-half, desperately laid out on the floor, side by side, the two issues of Time magazine bearing cover photos of the candidates. Mary was placed a short distance from the magazines, and she crawled toward them. Although disturbingly prompted by each rival faction, on two separate occasions she selected Kennedy. The consensus was that her relentless slapping of Kennedy’s picture was a signal of approval rather than an attempt to obliterate the man. Shouts of “cheat” were raised by the Republicans, who declared that the background of Kennedy’s picture was lighter and naturally more attractive.
The recount revealed a tie at six and one-half each, as close to the national average as thirteen people could be. Meanwhile, the Republicans gained new hope of carrying Carolyn by a slim margin. She was jocularly kept after school one day for wearing a Nixon-Lodge button, which she had gotten from a Republican’s daughter afraid to wear it to class. Nevertheless, Carolyn still supported a split ticket.
With the poll still tied, a suspicious and gullible Paul returned from school with the news that Nixon was afraid to go into New York without Eisenhower, and, because of that cowardly strategy, he was switching his support. Thus, the Kennedy supporters were triumphant by a vote of seven and one-half to five and one-half.
The effect of the grueling family campaign was opposite, however, when Momma and Daddy bolted the family to vote Republican. It was unrepresentative, yes, but the national results were satisfactory.
— As a postscript, follow-up memories recalled that Momma, a Home Economics major, reacted to Kennedy’s assertion that eating steak rather than beans was a good standard-of-living index, with “There is just as much protein in beans!” Daddy, a WWII veteran, had worn a Nixon button during the campaign, but wore a Kennedy button the day after the election, signaling that he supported the nation’s choice. And my history teacher, Mr. Henderson, responded “No way” to my naïve question if Kennedy, with less than fifty percent of the popular vote, would form a bi-partisan government.
Tom Comeaux said:
As a soon-to-be BC Eagle, who did you vote for?
By the way, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Democratic Party’s infatuation with the “Camelot” years of the Kennedys and the “return to Camelot” them of the Clintons. The theme song from the musical starts out describing some planks in the party’s current environmental platform.
Funny, my memory is hazy. Maybe because it snowed on March 3rd, the winter hadn’t exited March the second on the dot, and the morning fog was still around long after nine a.m., I realized this place isn’t Camelot. I may have been shielding the four eldest siblings from scrutiny back then. I think I was probably Nixonian.
Meanwhile, more memoroids:
The Nixon-Kennedy debates were the tv first crucial in-your-face imagery series, and Nixon’s was awful. Even if he had just shaved, he still had five-o’clock shadow looking like a forest about to break out. JFK was all central casting, with his Dad’s Hollywood experience added. Wait ’til you see my current Congressman, Joe III, even more the perfect tv candidate, soon to break national.
JFK made the bold move to go to Houston and allow local clergy to challenge his papism, a turning point in his campaign. Odd that Dallas ended it.
Nixon also faced the press in Houston when he was President and under Watergate siege. A memorable confrontation happened when a questioner was the equally grizzly Dan Rather. Rather received applause on introduction, causing Nix to ask “Are you running for something, Mr. Rather?” The abrasive response was, “No, Mr. President, are you?” Someone should have told Nix that Rather had been a play-by-play announcer for the Houston Buffaloes in their minor league days, and that was the source of the applause. Odd that Reagan had the same start.
Last, I think: Nix ran his successful campaign on a slogan “The New Nixon.” Perhaps the best political cartoon of all time, maybe from Mad Magazine, was an image of the Exxon gas station marquee, with “NIXXON” in place of the product, and the caption, “Still the same old gas.”
George Comeaux said:
Two other “incidentals” hopped into my memory bank.
The JFK-RMN debates being the first televised, I remember something I haven’t seen since. The limit for answers was maybe three minutes. RMN took the full three minutes for every answer. JFK sometimes answered in two or three short sentences. In recent memory, candidates take the whole allotment, and seldom respond to the question.
A quirky memory, and you really had to be there for this one, is one debate topic was defending the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, near the mainland China shore, but claimed by Formosa (now Taiwan) a hundred miles away. JFK declared them strategically indefensible; RMN said they must be defended, even nuclearly. JFK was elected, but the islands remained under Taiwan control, probably until Nixon was elected and was the first president to visit China with its current regime.