Sometime in those roughly 12 post-election hours between John Edwards' early morning threat to open up Ohio to the lawyer-legions, and John Kerry's concession speech in the afternoon, I went back to the books, back to the 1960 election when Richard Nixon was very, very narrowly defeated by John F. Kennedy.
What a difference 44 years makes. "I eased the tension of the wait (for election returns) by driving south on the Pacific Coast Highway," Nixon wrote in his memoirs. On that Election Day road trip, this sitting vice president and Republican presidential candidate was accompanied only by two aides and a Los Angeles police driver. One aide "remarked that he had never been to Tijuana, so we continued all the way to Mexico," Nixon wrote. "We were back in Los Angeles by the time the results were coming in."
Such whimsy belongs to a pre-satellite age. But Nixon sensed a new day was dawning with "the substantial and influential power that the emergence of television as the primary news medium gave reporters, commentators, and producers." He continued: "It was largely they who decided what the public would hear and see of the campaign." And you can say that again -- at least until lately. The advent of talk radio, Fox News and the Internet has finally begun to bust up that old info-nopoly.
Nixon went on to describe a whiplashing election night, trending, but barely, toward Kennedy. Only 113,000 votes -- including thousands of demonstrably fraudulent ones -- would ultimately separate the two candidates in the popular vote. That's 22,000 votes fewer than the margin separating George W. Bush and John Kerry in Ohio alone; it's less than 5 percent of the 3.5 million votes separating President Bush and Sen. Kerry nationally. Too close to call? Not according to the media, circa 1960. As Nixon wrote, they had already predicted a substantial Kennedy victory. Which, in light of the erroneous reports of a Kerry landslide this week, reminds us that some things really never change.
Describing "tremendous pressure" to concede from reporters and pundits, Nixon made a brief statement after midnight to acknowledge the sliver of a Kennedy edge. Contrast that with the tremendous reluctance of the Kerry-cheering mainstream media even to call Ohio for President Bush, probably out of fear of validating his re-election and, quite inadvertently, forcing some sort of a midnight concession from Sen. Kerry.
The 1960 morning brought a shrinking margin and reports of massive Democratic fraud in Texas and Illinois. But Nixon went statesman on his political allies and refused to demand a recount. "The effect could be devastating to America's foreign relations," he wrote patriotically, "and I could not subject the country to such a situation." He also didn't want to be known as a "sore loser." Given the early machinations of the Kerry campaign, I doubt either reason moved John Kerry. He simply realized the futility of his situation and conceded the election -- to the quite obvious distress of the mainstream media.
NBC's Katie Couric donned black. "It looks more and more like the president has won," Ms. Couric said -- after the president had won. "You take my breath away," ABC's Peter Jennings told an election law expert on hearing that Ohio was out of Kerry's reach. Radio talkster Don Imus said NBC's Tom Brokaw greeted him around dawn saying, "What a nightmare."
What is most extraordinary about Election 2004 is that the president did win, despite the shameful affinity of the mainstream media and the Kerry campaign. The American people managed to hear and see through the fuzz and the junk, through "60 Minutes" and "Nightline," through The New York Times and the, well, New York Times. They also managed to see through Springsteen and Streisand, through the millions of George Soros and the mouth of Michael Moore.
There is something close to poetic justice in the creaky monolith of Old Media showing its advanced age and crotchety bias in a campaign that now ends in the defeat of John Kerry. That is, in important ways, the mainstream and John Kerry are kindred creatures of the far-away 1960s, both setting their anti-establishment ways during both the Vietnam War and, stateside, the anti-Vietnam War. You might even say that together they helped create and perpetuate the poisonous myth of the Vietnam veteran as enemy of humanity -- touchstone of the self-hating American.
And now, with the re-election of George W. Bush, they have been defeated. More important -- and massive thanks to the e-scribes of the blogosphere and John O'Neill and his Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- they have been exposed in ways once unimaginable. Which could presage a truly new era.