Three men on the verge
Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon find their way to power
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- One was a wealthy Bostonian, handsome but sickly, a rakish war hero uncertain about his future.
One was a hardscrabble Texan, a towering, bluff figure whose wiles and command hid a terror of failure.
And one was a brooding Californian, with an elephant's memory for details and slights, who covered his reserved personality with determination and an eye for the main chance.
They became the 35th, 36th and 37th presidents of the United States -- John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon -- but in 1948, they were on the verge only of becoming. What, nobody could know.
Lance Morrow has long been fascinated by the three men, how their careers turned on a dime, how their lives and times overlapped, and how 1948 eventually led each of them -- three very different people from three far points of the United States -- to the presidency. He writes about the trio in "The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon in 1948" (Basic Books).
Kennedy, coming off his first term in the House, was faced with his sister's death and the death sentence of Addison's disease. Johnson, then a six-term congressman, threw himself into one of the first modern Senate campaigns, one the soon-to-be-nicknamed "Landslide Lyndon" won by the skin of his teeth. And Nixon, who would be elected to the Senate two years later, got his first taste of the national spotlight with the Alger Hiss hearings -- and his first taste of the "Tricky Dick" vitriol he would inspire for the rest of his life.
All this in the midst of tumultuous postwar change, adds Morrow, a former Time magazine columnist and now a professor at Boston University.
"It was a pivotal year for the United States as well -- the beginning of the Cold War, the rise of television, the baby boom, the move to the suburbs. ... I used the facts of what 1948 meant to their careers to talk about the larger changes in America," he says in a phone interview.
'I felt ... I somehow knew them'
Morrow says he's been thinking about the book for years. The Washington native is the son of journalists and a former Senate page, and he got to view JFK, LBJ and Nixon personally in the 1950s when the first two were senators and the latter was vice president.
Lance Morrow was a Senate page in the 1950s.
His memories are still clear, 50 years later.
"I always was able to conjure these guys up -- their body English, their voices, their dress, the way their eyes looked," he says. "I felt in the case of all three that I somehow knew them, and all of them were terribly imperfect."
Kennedy, in particular, was still finding his way in the world. In 1948 he was, Morrow writes, lackadaisical and very much to the manor born; he dressed like a sloppy college kid and was used to having servants pick up after him. His father, and his father's ample fortune, had helped him get to Congress, but to Kennedy -- just 31 in 1948 -- the job wasn't a calling.
"He was just beginning to find his vocation and to escape from the orbit of his father," Morrow says. "He began to see his father" -- isolationist, anti-Semitic, domineering -- "as apart from himself" and start relying on his own coolly intellectual instincts, Morrow says.
Kennedy also was suffering from Addison's, a sometimes fatal disease, having had his first attack in 1947. With the help of cortisone and other drugs, he recovered, but knowing the disease could kill his political career, he lied about it until he died.
Johnson, on the other hand, was an experienced political hand, having overcome a poverty-stricken childhood to head a Texas New Deal agency and then get elected to Congress. But by 1948, despite being enriched by his overlapping political and commercial connections (most notably an Austin radio station), he was feeling stifled. The Senate campaign -- against Coke Stevenson, the Texas governor -- was, he believed, his last shot at the big time.
He pulled out all the stops in the primary, submerging his liberal leanings to dance to the right of the popular Stevenson and even using a helicopter -- stunning at the time -- to travel across the state. Even so, he won the election by 87 votes -- the closest Senate race in U.S. history -- and did so with almost certain ballot tampering.
And Nixon, who had overcome a rough childhood of his own, seized on the Hiss controversy to make his name as an arch anti-Communist who took no prisoners. Two years later, he beat Helen Gahagan Douglas -- labeling her "pink right down to her underwear" -- to become a senator. In 1952, thanks to his anti-Communist bona fides, he was sharing the GOP ticket with Dwight Eisenhower and about to be vice president.
"The Best Year of Their Lives" is as much about lurking shadows as it is the bright lights of power.
All three men had lost siblings in their youth. All three hid secrets they believed could derail their careers. All three could be ruthless, striding over competitors without a second thought.
Joe McCarthy -- a colleague of the men -- walks in and out of the book, an object lesson on the rise and fall of power. His specter is like a cold chill.
And then there are the circular currents of history, bringing both glory and infamy to all. Vietnam, an offshoot of anti-Communist concern, sucked Kennedy in and engulfed Johnson and Nixon. The generation being born in 1948 was energized by Kennedy, shocked by his assassination, and turned on Johnson and Nixon. Television, fairly new in 1948, became the lens with which to view politicians, making and breaking them like common celebrities.
Though the images of the three men have hardened over the years -- Kennedy the golden boy cut down in his prime, Nixon the dark prince and Johnson somewhere in between -- Morrow says the truth is more complicated.
"I feel a terrific ambivalence about all three," he says. "They all had good and bad sides. Nixon has a side that, if it's not necessarily attractive, is at least accomplished," he says, noting his foreign policy savvy. Johnson, envisioner of the Great Society, "could have been a great man, but he sort of destroyed himself."
And Kennedy, whose soaring rhetoric added glitter to his achievements, has since been revealed as a flawed man whose personal behavior skirted the edges of propriety.
"Had he lived, what a different world it could have been, his loyalists say. But it's also possible his dark side could have overtaken him," Morrow observes. "It might have been a terrible mess if [all the stories] had come out, catastrophic."
Mostly, says Morrow, he hopes the book gives the men and their time some depth. We tend to simplify events and people in retrospect, forgetting the gray areas and uncertainties that existed at the time, he observes. Even the movie that inspired the book's title -- 1946's World War II coming-home drama "The Best Years of Our Lives" -- isn't as happily two-dimensional as many remember.
"It's a very good movie and a very complicated movie, and it strikes a lot of chords I try to pick up on in the book," he says. "In reality, these guys [JFK, LBJ and Nixon] were complicated and contradictory, and so was 1948. ... One thing I tried to do was catch the complicated processes that were molding America and these three guys, and follow it and work myself through."