While reading The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s formidable biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, I found myself recalling my role in the election of 1960 when Senator John F. Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard Nixon for president. I was a junior member of the Washington staff of the Associated Press then but nevertheless landed some juicy assignments. Since my role has been ignored by biographers and historians, from Theodore H. White to Caro, I thought it might be helpful to set down some of the details.
My main job at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in early July was to take full charge of our operation after midnight every day as soon as all the editors and senior writers finished filing all the copy to AP headquarters in New York. All alone, I had to deal with any requests from New York for changes in the finished stories or for new stories. Usually there was nothing to do. But in the hours after the nomination of John F. Kennedy for president, I received a significant request. We had neglected to file any story for afternoon papers (there were a lot of those in the mid-20th century) speculating about who might become Kennedy’s choice for vice president. I set to work.
Old Washington hands had made it clear that Kennedy would probably choose either Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri or Senator Henry Jackson of Washington. So I put their names high up. For good measure, I added some other Democrats of similar prominence: Governor Orville L. Freeman of Minnesota, Governor G. Mennen Williams of Michigan, and Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota. I then put down some remote possibilities: Senator George Smathers of Florida, Governor Leroy Collins of Florida and a couple of others.
When I finished, I read the story very carefully to make sure I had not left anyone out. I soon realized that I had. There was no mention of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, the Senate majority leader. But, I told myself, he did not have a chance in the world; he wasn’t even a remote possibility. Kennedy and Johnson had utter contempt for each other. Yet, I told myself, you are working for the Associated Press, you had better stick his name in. So somewhere in the story, I can’t remember exactly where, I pencilled in the name of Lyndon B. Johnson.
When I came down the elevator of the Biltmore Hotel after my wake-up shower the next afternoon, I was astonished to hear some delegates jabbering about the surprise selection of Johnson. I felt a gush of shock and relief. Thank God I had been smart enough to pencil in his name at the last moment. Since then, I have always counted myself as standing among those very few pundits savvy enough to predict the possibility of JFK’s selection of LBJ. At the very least, of course, I had covered the ass of the AP and surely my own.
At the end of the month at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, I was again all alone on the midnight to dawn shift. Nixon won the nomination easily but a few delegates cast ballots for Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the darling of the party’s right wing. A few hours later, I received a message from headquarters in New York asking for a story celebrating that Goldwater was the first Jew to ever receive votes at a Republican national convention.
I pondered this troubling request for some time. Then I wrote, “Happy to write the story. But I should point out that Goldwater regards himself as an Episcopalian though there are some people — like Hitler — who would say once a Jew always a Jew.” In less then a minute, a curt message told me to forget the story. I have often felt that, if the trustees of Columbia University awarded Pulitzer Prizes for interoffice messages, I would have won one that year.
During the campaign, back in Washington, I continued to man the early shift singlehandedly, working from 10:30 p.m. to six the next morning every day. My most important job was to write the daily “undated political roundup.” It was called undated because it bore no dateline like “Philadelphia, Sept. 8.” Instead the story wrapped up all the news from Kennedy and Nixon no matter where they spoke.
Bill Beale, the Washington bureau chief, impressed upon me the need for complete impartiality in my daily roundups. Beale was an odd fit for the job of bureau chief. He was so shy that if you said hello to him in the morning he glanced the other way. He also was a known alcoholic who did not function very well during the afternoons. But more about him later.
I solved the impartiality problem fairly easily. I simply ignored the news value of anything Nixon and Kennedy said during the day and alternated my emphasis on one or the other day by day. So if Monday’s roundup began, “Senator John F. Kennedy today said this or that while Vice President Richard M. Nixon said that or this,” then Tuesday’s roundup would begin, “Vice President Richard M. Nixon today said this or that while Senator John F. Kennedy said that or this.” I continued this alternation for the rest of the week. At the end of the campaign, Beale, still avoiding my line of sight, complimented me and confided he had not received any complaint all campaign long.
My most dramatic moment in the campaign came during the night after the November 8th voting. I was assigned as one of the three monkeys seated with our typewriters in front of the television set. This campaign, with its series of four nationally televised debates, had made clear the power of television in news coverage, and the three monkeys concept was a way to demonstrate to newspapers that the Associated Press could deliver a full story on an event almost as fast as it was taking place on television.
When television presented an important news event like a presidential speech, the three reporters we called monkeys took turns writing a running story about what was said. The first monkey would attempt to type out as fast as possible the gist of what he heard using as many direct quotes as possible. When the reporter started to fall behind, he would signal to the next monkey to take over. A copyboy would then grab the sheet of paper out of the first monkey’s typewriter and rush it to the copy desk for quick editing before the teletype operator sent it out to thousands of newspapers in the world.
If there had been television in Abraham Lincoln’s day, the first monkey would have handled the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address something along these lines: “President Lincoln, noting that the United States had been formed some years ago, stated that the civil war was testing whether our nation can long endure.’” A monkey did not have to be elegant, only fast.
As the returns came in from the Northeast and the South that night, it looked like a landslide victory for Kennedy. The New York Times was so confident that its first edition already heralded a Kennedy victory. But as totals piled in from the west, the race tightened, though never enough for Nixon to win. In the end, it turned into a narrow Kennedy victory.
A little after 3 a.m., word spread that Nixon and his wife would soon appear at party headquarters in California to make a statement. Everyone assumed he would now concede that he had been defeated, making the symbolic concession speech that always signaled the end of an election. The AP prepared for this. Copy was written, all ready to go. And we three monkeys sat down in front of the television set.
Nixon and his wife appeared on the screen. I was the first monkey. Nixon said that “if the present trend continues,” Kennedy would become the next president of the United States. “If the present trend does continue,” he went on, President Kennedy would have his full support. It did not sound like much of a concession to me. But, of course, I had never covered a presidential election before.
As I typed, I could feel the presence of Bill Beale, the bureau chief, right behind me. I did not know whether he was staring at the screen or reading the copy on my typewriter. I did not know if he had sobered up yet. In any case, he suddenly started to shout, “That’s it. He’s conceded.” A copyboy pulled the sheet of paper out of my machine and ran with it to the copy desk.
Beale’s shout released the first but most explosive bit of copy on to the wires: “Flash. Nixon concedes.” A flash was a wire service’s blasting, bell-ringing notice that the impending story had the highest urgency. The AP in Washington flashed a story no more than two or three times a year. An old and savvy hand, white-haired Bill Peacock, manned the desk then. He read my copy, including the troublesome qualifying phrase “if the present trend continues,” and found nothing to justify Beale’s shout and the flash that had just gone around the world. He quickly pulled the “bulletin” — the first paragraph of a major news story — back from the teletype operator before it moved on the wires. The bulletin said that Nixon had conceded the election. Peacock quickly pencilled in the words “all but” before the verb “conceded” and pushed the copy back to the teletype operator.
Nixon had made what is now known as his concession speech without a concession. Thanks to our bureau chief, the AP had flashed a woeful error. Nixon did not concede until much later in the afternoon, and he did so without making a speech. Instead, he sent out his press secretary, Herb Klein, to make the announcement. In the next week’s edition of the trade magazine Editor and Publisher, our rival, the United Press International, published a gloating advertisement along these lines: “United Press International was not the major national news service that flashed Nixon’s concession twelve hours before it happened.” I felt as if I had played a small part in the history of American journalism.