More than a half-century ago, after he defeated Richard M. Nixon in one of the closest presidential races of all time, John F. Kennedy was persuaded to fly from his Palm Beach retreat to the vice president’s Key Biscayne redoubt as a symbol of national unity. The two men were far closer than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are, but still there was some awkwardness in the gesture, which had been cooked up by former Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and former President Herbert Hoover.
The two, both Navy men who went to Congress in 1946, met amid palm trees and flashing photographers’ lights, and perhaps no one noticed then what is so obvious now from the aging footage of the event, that the victor, whose breakthrough came in the first presidential debate earlier that autumn, wore a dark suit and that the vanquished wore a gray suit, tantalizingly like the one that allowed him to fade into the background so disastrously at the WBBM-TV studio in Chicago.
The president-elect began with a question that nagged at his mind, asking his opponent: “How the hell did you carry Ohio?”
Perhaps in a few days, Obama and Romney will meet, for in truth the nation needs a robust symbol of unity far more in 2012, when the two candidates differed on so much and assembled coalitions that opposed each other with such anger and distrust, than it did in 1960. Kennedy and Nixon were — despite the folklore that now portrays the contest as a titanic struggle between bitter rivals and competing worldviews — more alike than different.
The campaign just completed will be remembered for the struggle for Ohio, but also for its intensity, its nastiness, its price tag. The two combatants fought fiercely. They obscured their own records and distorted their rivals’. Their allies portrayed their opponents as monsters in a Manichaean struggle of good versus evil. In that, as in so much else they said, they were wrong.