“The best time to listen to a politician is when he’s on a stump on a street corner in the rain late at night when he’s exhausted. Then he doesn’t lie.” – Theodore H. White

“A liberal is a person who believes that water can be made to run uphill. A conservative is someone who believes everybody should pay for his water. I’m somewhere in between: I believe water should be free, but that water flows downhill.” – Theodore H. White

Tired of this seemingly never-ending 2012 Presidential Campaign?  Sick of watching Frankenstorm Sandy?  Well, there’s a real treat in store for you political history buffs, running on British streaming, Acorn TV, all this week until next Sunday.

Over 50 years ago now, in his acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize winning: “Making of the President 1960,” my uncle, Theodore H. White, changed journalistic coverage of American Presidential Election Campaigns forever.  Life on the rugged campaign trail with each candidate has ever since been a staple of our media coverage, spawning countless other, similar books and a whole host of imitators.   The ‘Making of the President 1960’ remains required reading in Civics and Politics courses in colleges too numerous to mention.  This documentary should be required viewing for anybody who wants to understand better how we got to where we are today. 

“Teddy,” as his friends called him; or “Uncle Teddy,” as I called him, while growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, or; “Toody,” (rhymes with “Woody), as my father (and his other brother, sister, mother, and other family) called him – by whatever name you choose, Theodore H. White was truly the Godfather of hard-nosed, rough and tumble, modern campaign reportage.

We now watch this squeaker of a 2012 Presidential Campaign, winding down to voting day next week.  Our Big Screen TVs today feature 24/7, wall-to-wall, Talking Heads coverage, like one more Reality TV Show, but it all really started in the 1960 Campaign, as this documentary explains.

Teddy White, wrote this documentary, reporting from the Campaign Trail, more than half a century ago on the now legendary 1960 election.  This documentary is a living history of those long ago days.  It is a real must-see for every lover of political history in the raw, so gather the kids and grandchildren for this trip down memory lane.

The black and white film begins with a late-forties-aged Teddy White, sitting at his typewriter, in what looks like his cozy study.  It then cuts to a bank of rotary dial phones on the desk in the Oval Room, a “ganglia” of wires.  This half-century old, then state-of-the-art, technology, tells us, ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas, anymore.’

The narrator continues, in the old-time newsreel voice of Martin Gabel, to set the stage, in this, the ‘172nd year of their republic’ for America to choose it’s new President, a nail-biter of a stunningly close race between Nixon and Kennedy.

We then see each on the stump, where Teddy knew them best – Veep Nixon, calling JFK a ‘modern medicine man,’ and JFK calling Nixon somebody who reminds him of the elephant symbol of his party . . . ‘being led around the circus ring,’ each grabbing ‘the tail of the elephant in front of them.’

We trace the campaign trail from New Hampshire until November, when “68 Million Americans” would vote.  For Kennedy, the primary battle was with Humphrey – “I sort of feel like an independent merchant trying to compete against the chain stores when I’m up against the Kennedy Family” – while wife, Muriel, gave out cards with her recipe for Black Bean Soup.   But, LBJ, Adlai Stevenson ( “two-time loser” to Ike in ’52 and ‘56), and Stuart Symington all waited in the wings.  For Nixon, he was up against Nelson Rockefeller, and Barry Goldwater, who would later win the 1964 Republican nomination.

The U-2 incident, strife in the Congo, and a belligerent Cold War Soviet Union, made that world turbulent enough.  Early on, Truman asked JFK if he was really ready to be President, or if the country was ready for him.  Kennedy and Humphrey feared Democratic Party Bosses would pick their candidate in a smoky backroom of the convention, ignoring the primaries.  Was Kennedy’s Catholicism perhaps too controversial back then among majority Protestant voters?

The Democratic Convention, Summer of 1960 – 761 votes was the magic number – a Los Angeles where City Hall was still the tallest building.  Suite 8315 at the Biltmore, was JFK‘s Headquarters  – Teddy is seen waiting with the JFK entourage and campaign team, huddled together in smoky rooms.

An old time Convention battle ensues, and Kennedy emerges the victor at the old Sports Arena.

The Republican Convention in Chicago – Rockefeller threatens an open floor fight.  Nixon calls to visit Rocky’s home at 81- Fifth Ave., in NYC, secretly, where Nixon offers the Veep spot to Rocky, who turns him down.  Back in Chicago, Nixon is in command, and a compromise platform is accepted through his efforts.  Nixon’s speech is masterful, pledging a 50-state campaign – more prophetic than anybody would realize – ‘When Khrushchev said our grandchildren will live under Communism, [Nixon said he would respond that] their grandchildren will live in freedom!’

A new census counted the nation – Americans numbered over 180 million!  Banks of census counters with primitive computers tabbing punch cards at what was then blinding speed – Americans are moving in droves to suburbia – half of all Blacks now lived outside the South, in big cities of the North and West.

And the real campaign begins – Nixon flies “overnight across the broad Pacific to Hawaii,” while Truman and JFK make amends.  Nixon’s knee becomes infected from a campaign trail scrape – he is out of the campaign in the hospital for two weeks – his 50-state pledge is in jeopardy.  TV coverage (in 44 million homes now, up from 4 million homes in 1950) makes this the first truly modern campaign.

There is a memorable scene where the candidates are explained the rules of how a TV debate will work and extended footage from those debates, each candidate sitting in a bare chair, flanking a moderator at a small desk before the largest audience in political history (nearly 70 million Americans watched the four debates) – you may well remember watching it, if you are old enough.

Nixon keeps his 50-state pledge, flying to Alaska, seeking all of it’s 3 electoral votes, proudly announcing he was the first in history to campaign in all 50 states of the US – Hawaii and Alaska had only become states the year before!

September 12, 1960, JFK makes his great speech on religion, confronting head-on his Catholicism, and explaining well that he will be President of all the people.

Dueling campaign speech clips demonstrate the ferocity of a Presidential Campaign was all there 50+ years ago, hardly some new phenomenon of our 21stC, wired world.  And, racial issues were there then also – Martin Luther King is arrested in the Deep South, but a few wise words from JFK effected his release, perhaps garnering JFK more than a few Black votes.

The film ends after the results, Nixon watching on TV, with family, from the old Ambassador Hotel; JFK, ending his 100,000 mile campaign in Hyannisport, also with family, also watching it on TV.  269 electoral votes were needed, and Nixon took an early lead, then JFK, then a Nixon counter-tide rose through the night, all night, as JFK’s lead froze at 265, with four states to go, any of which would give the JFK the Presidency.  At 5:45am, Michigan’s 20 electoral votes put JFK over the top, and the Secret Service detail is officially assigned.

You can see this incredible blast-from-the-past, multiple Emmy-award winning David Wolper documentary as a streaming video on Acorn TV: until November 4, or you can buy the DVD, which is a 3-volume, boxed set, including two rare bonus programs, a 1964 tribute to JFK, and an intimate look at LBJ.  Don’t miss it!