I learned that The Making of the President – 1960 is a book
The book’s author is Theodore White.
The game’s title comes from a bestseller, Pulitzer prize. The first of a series of detailed accounts he wrote, with strong literary overtones, about four American presidential campaigns. The book was turned into an award-winning documentary.
Why did the designers choose that particular election? Its obvious landmarks are well-known: the election of one of the youngest American presidents ever, the first and only Catholic, who would be assassinated in office three years later. But there are many exceptional features lying just a little deeper, that make the 1960 presidential campaign deserve, more than so many others, to become the subject of a historical game.
It is impossible not to learn a lot from such a game.
I learned that the 1960 campaign results were the closest in the 20th century
And among the closest of American history. (Indeed Grover Cleveland defeated James Blaine, winning the popular vote by only 24,000 votes in 1884, but it was in a context far too different to even be comparable.)
Kennedy received only 113,000 votes more than Nixon of the 68 million total votes cast, a nano-majority of 0.17%. A popular vote gap nearly three times narrower than the one between Bush and Gore in the tragicomedy of 2000. The margin of victory ended up being under 1% in six states, under 5% in fifteen others (and as always in such close cases, electoral fraud was alleged on both sides).
Obviously, as game designer, those are the first features you are looking for. Two eventful campaigns, two popular candidates with equal chances at victory, but for diametrically opposed reasons. And all the tension of an unpredictable yet historical outcome.
I Learned That This Photo Existed…
It is such a delight. I can’t help smiling every time I look at it. So perfectly comical that it could have been staged. Perfect attitudes. The blissful smile of the onlooker who manages to contort enough to reach Nixon. The hasty step of a frowning Nixon, obsessed with his watch, who could not conceivably show less interest toward a supporter. It has everything.
A cropped version can be seen on the card “Fatigue Sets In”. Incidently, the development team and Canadian graphic designer Joshua Cappel have to be credited for the excellent iconographic research done on this game.
This photo is quite a judicious choice, to illustrate the card’s subject, but also to demonstrate how photographs can be deceitful…
It was taken nearly 15 years after the 1960 campaign, during a visit to Belgium made by the then President Nixon.
The photographer, Charles Tasnadi (1925-2008), was from Hungary and went through barbed wire and a mine field to defect in 1951. He ended up as a photographer for Associated Press and worked in Washington for over 30 years, covering numerous political subjects, but mostly 7 U.S. Presidents.
His hilarious shot of Nixon is not a one-off. He definitely had a knack for capturing Presidents in quite un-presidential moments.
Gerald Ford guffawing after a ski fall, in Colorado in 1975:
Lyndon Johnson proudly showing the Press his gall bladder surgery scar:
A scar which the sharp pen of cartoonist David Levine drew in the shape of Vietnam:
As much as I enjoy Tasnadi’s witty photo, I try to resist the temptation of holding it against Nixon, who was certainly not as rude as it suggests. Photographs are moments blown out of proportion, that can easily lie, as we are about to see yet again.
… And That This One, As It Were, Did Not
The two leaders are in an American model house, in what was, back in 1959, an ultra-modern kitchen. The photographer knew how to “place himself on the trajectory of chance”, as Cartier-Bresson put it, and could capture several moments of a lively discussion.
The protagonists are of course the Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and the American Vice President Richard Nixon.
The kitchen and the model house were part of the American National Exhibition, held in Moscow in July 1959. The event was an effort to improve relations between the USSR and the United States (the Soviets had held a similar exhibition a few months earlier in New York).
The photographer is Elliott Erwitt, whose brilliance no longer needs to be expanded upon.
Of the fifty-some shots he took in those few minutes, one only would make history. Angering the Soviets, galvanizing the Americans, it did become a symbol of the Cold War. It is no wonder that, in addition to being included in 1960: The Making of a President (“Stature Gap”), it is also found in the Twilight Struggle deck.
A fiery Nixon poking a determined finger at an unsettled Khrushchev: appearances have turned this shot into an icon.
The thing is, while there were some political discussions during the visit, what Erwitt heard once he was close enough had nothing to do with Nixon standing up to the Soviets with “authority” or “courage”. The two men were rather joking about the merits of cabbage soup.
If there’s one thing photographers must never, ever do, it is to show their contacts sheets or to display them in public. […] Because they might prove too revealing. Because wrong conclusions could be made, and perhaps even worse, correct ones.
– Elliott Erwitt
The contact sheet of the whole sequence, which can be seen here, would tend to prove that. And we can also see Khrushchev poking his finger at Nixon.
I Learned that 1960 was the first campaign in which television played a significant role
The Strength of the Image
In 1960, what is regarded as the golden age of television, from the smashing success of Milton Berle in 1948 to the scandal of Quiz Show in 1959, had already passed. By then almost 90 per cent of American households had a television, and watched it an average of five hours a day.
Yet if the 1960 campaign revealed anything about TV, it is its immense power. A force that could no longer be ignored: appearances.
The four Kennedy-Nixon “Great Debates” were the first political debates to be televised. The first one, held on September 26, 1960, was the most decisive — and the most watched. Nixon and his advisers learned the hard way how unforgiving black and white could be, and were given a harsh lesson on image management.
The anecdote is known: Nixon was just out of the hospital where he had been fighting an infection. He had refused to wear make-up, relying on cheap Lazy Shave powder. His light suit and tie were in the same tones as the backdrop of the set. And the heat from the spotlights made him sweat.
The result? What 70 million viewers saw on their TV was that one of the candidates had fleeing eyes, a shadow beard and was sweating profusely, struggling to impose himself. In comparison, the other candidate looked relaxed, confident, almost tanned, looking straight at the camera.
The whole impact of TV on public perception is summed up in the results of a survey conducted after this first debate. A majority of the voters who had watched the debate on television declared Kennedy the winner, while most of those who had listened to it on the radio gave the victory to Nixon.
The Strength of the News Clip
From a press conference held in July 1960, that had lasted over 30 minutes, television retained, transformed and spread a single sentence. The rather exasperated answer that President Eisenhower ended up serving to Charles H. Mohr, a reporter with Time Magazine, after a long barrage of questions about Nixon’s experience. He had asked Eisenhower to name one major contribution that his Vice President had made to his administration.
If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.
Was this snappy remark targeting Nixon, or even Mohr? Was it a mere attempt at humor, as both Eisenhower and Nixon later said? The thing is, it just did not matter anymore. The clip was out there. And with the help of new techniques that had been inaccessible to the print media, it was effectively weaponized by the Kennedy team into a quite damaging campaign ad. With replay, we hear, but also see Eisenhower say it, not once, but twice. With editing, the clip is removed from its original context, and mixed with other carefully chosen clips, and put into a narrative, driven home by an overall, not-so-subtle, but very efficient, voice-over commentary.
Not surprisingly, in the game, the card “Give me a week”, could make the Nixon player loose momentum and get weaker on all debate issues.
Back to the Game
Those are just a few reasons why the significant role given to the debates and the media in the design of 1960: The Making of the President, makes it such a rich historical game.
An entire phase of the game is dedicated to the debate. A mini-game in itself, for which both players should begin preparing early on. It can be a turning point before Election Day. And the balance can very easily be tipped against the Nixon player.
The mechanics surrounding the presence of the media are also extremely thematic and well done. Players can gain media support in each region by investing valuable political capital points. Media support allows a player to gain more state support, by weakening his opponent’s grasp on states that he is carrying. The player having the most media support can also prioritize the issues for the upcoming debate.But those are rarely decisive advantages. Rather, the genius of the game is to make sure that, as the Nixon campaign learned in 1960, media support becomes an important factor to the extent it is ignored by one of the players.
I started writing with the intent of listing the many reasons why this particular election became the subject of a game. But I realize that these few seem to already amply justify the choice.
They are enough, in any case, to make 1960 a game intelligently designed, satisfying to explore and delightful to play.