Review of 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon

1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon—The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies by David Pietrusza

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

As this is my third Pietrusza book, I think it’s high time I thought about why his writing works for me. Clearly, it does.

I now have 1920, 1949, and 1960 under my belt – and for the record would be up for reading any more of this author’s works. The one thing that marks these works is an extraordinary amount of detail drawn from a rich variety of primary sources. For many, I would fear that exhaustive historical detail would be off-putting. What makes these work for me (and I would hope for others) is the sardonic wit that the author weaves into his delivery. Whether examining the postwar race to redefine America in 1920 or 1949 or the more recent and well-covered battle between Nixon and Kennedy in some of the first televised debates, Peitrusza creates an engaging and well-narrated curation of electoral campaign life at the highest echelon of American politics. He tells the tale well. The author creates an original recitation of material, some of which may well be familiar, but presented uniquely and combined with some fresh and anecdotal chunks delivers a superb read.
Pietrusza has an evident knack for choosing lovely hinge points in American political history, as well as colourful characters.

This particular work is substantial, accompanied by a good selection of visual imagery and a surprisingly concise focus on the campaign itself. The author swerves off to give an appropriate background on the various characters. There is a substantial collection of characters – the dramatis personae introduce us all to them at the outset. Unlike many works where I might have skipped this, I made a point of reading through it, leading to my only major criticism of this work. After going through the extensive list of people I am warned I will meet, I had a sense I knew the main point that the subsequent narrative would deliver. And alas, I was right. The author seems to have chosen a particularly pithy quote or opinion that defined the subsequent telling. As introduced, the author would repeat it in the narrative and the captions on each of the photos. This approach resulted in a recognisable and slightly irritating repetition of this magical key and defining point – pithy quote – defining judgments. The author seemed determined to drive home again and again and again. Did the author feel that readers are lazy and miss if he didn’t repeat or deliver in different means? Did he lack confidence in his delivery or suffer a lack of respect of the reader? It’s all good material, and the repetition didn’t always feel like filler. Still, maybe I was a closer reader than the author expected. Dangerously, the repetition leads a reader to sense that these opinions become defining moments and possibly define the author’s own opinion anchoring him to a unidimensional appreciation of the subject. This is unfortunate.

As far as the content is concerned, it fulfills its promise – with the exception of LBJ. 1960 is generally seen through the lens of the first debate of the 1960 Presidential campaign. It’s about Nixon and Kennedy. Pietrusza adopts an appropriately substantiated position that the campaign had multiple dimensions behind this one defining event. The introduction of LBJ speaks to this promise. Although Johnson is discussed and his character analysed, the multidimensional aspect of this campaign falls by the wayside – possibly because Cabot Lodge is largely a non-runner and without a subsequent role has fallen by the historical wayside. However, the promise was made and from the reader’s perspective, I would have to say that there was some unrealised potential here in exposing LBJ’s broader role and how his subsequent career was shaped by this particular experience.

Pietrusza is readable, engaging, and colourful. I recommend the three books I have read thus far and would boldly suggest that they can appeal beyond those particularly drawn to political history. Lest one think my quibble might have put me off, I am off to choose a fourth read.

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