I’ve always had an obsession with presidential elections. Putting aside any partisanship, I’ve forever been attracted to the pageantry, the excitement and the drama that is usually found during any typical campaign season. My love affair with elections began 55 years ago when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the 1960 race for the Presidency, the first campaign I was old enough to follow. Of course, when I say “follow,” do not think in terms of reading up on issues, studying the candidate’s stands on foreign policy and taxes, or researching the political party’s platform on Civil Rights…although the 1960 Election did play itself out at the grammar school level with as much fervor as there was among adults, the nature of the campaign among kids had a wonderfully innocent if not naïve feel to it.
Prior the entering 2nd grade, I knew little about presidents and even less about elections. I had heard about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and I had a vague awareness that the current President was a guy named Eisenhower, who was older than my grandfather. In the early fall of 1960, the kid across the street mentioned to me that the country was going to vote on a new President, and that it was probably going to be Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s Vice President, and according to the young man’s parents, deserved the job. Our conversation was joined by my friend Scooter, who agreed that Nixon should be our next President, a feeling that shared by several more children who had joined in what was my first political discussion. Like many youngsters, I wanted to feel like part of the group, so I instantly became a young Republican, an affiliation that lasted for about 20 minutes. Arriving back at my house, I asked my mother if our family was supporting Nixon, a question that was answered with the quickest “no” I had ever received from my mom. At that moment, I heard the name John F. Kennedy for the first time, as my mother explained that the Daleys were lifelong Democrats. Since I always had faith in my mom’s judgment, I immediately switched parties, and have not budged since.
Democrats were overwhelmingly outnumbered on Pinehurst Court. Our neighbors on our southern border were registered Republicans, as were the parents of my best friend Dougie, both who hailed from rural Colorado. The only support Kennedy was receiving on my block came from the two families that sent their children to St. Dunstan’s, a Catholic school, which made sense to me once I learned about Kennedy’s religion. Everyone on Pinehurst seemed to be locked into the election with the exception of our northern next door neighbors, the Schribers, whose father was more worried about the possibility of election coverage pre-empting Roller Derby. But happily, Kennedy seemed to be polling better at Meadows School.
The 1960 Election was debated furiously on the Meadows playground. During every recess, arguments over the merits of the two candidates would continue all the way to the bell, only to be picked up again the moment we all got back outside. Kickball teams were no longer comprised of the two 2nd grade classes, but instead were determined by political considerations. Games were now played between the “Kennedys” and the “Nixons.” As stated earlier, issues were not discussed, as the focus was usually on the candidate’s looks (a big plus for Kennedy) and their respective speaking voices (none of us were yet used to Kennedy’s Boston accent). This went on for a number of weeks, until the middle of October when the Nixon campaign was rocked by one of the most vicious rumors ever thrown at a presidential contender, a game-changer that would do untold damage to Nixon, at least among kids.
It was less than three weeks before the day of the 1960 Election (November 8) that the word was being spread that should Richard Nixon win the Presidency, all children in the U.S. would be required to attend school on Saturdays, in addition to the existing five day schedule. Like many rumors, no one knew its source, but those who were passing it around seemed convinced of its validity. Looking back, you might ask if any of us thought to check this out with an adult, maybe a parent, or especially with a teacher, who would be just as affected by a six day school week as the kids would be. Well, no we didn’t, because that’s not how we operated. Urban legends that were embraced by children did not require input from grownups…we would process them on our own, thank you very much.
Needless to say, Richard Nixon’s support among seven year olds evaporated very quickly. Oh sure, there were a few hold-outs, but those were the nerdy little brainiacs who loved school, and were usually lousy at kickball. Meanwhile, at the other side of the Meadows School playground, my future friend John Arnolfo was dealing with an emotional struggle. A 5th grader, John was from a staunch Republican family, but the Nixon “school on Saturday” story had hit him like a ton of bricks. Swallowing the rumor hook, line and sinker, John made the difficult decision to break from his parents and jump aboard the Kennedy bandwagon. As he explained to me in later years, “Between five days of school, and church on Sundays, Saturday is all we had to look forward to…I’d sooner be damned than to give that up.”
In another part of Millbrae, another future friend was facing a dilemma. Jeff Banchero, a 4th grader at Green Hills Elementary was assigned by his teacher the task of delivering a campaign speech to his class on the behalf of John F. Kennedy while a fellow student would do the same for Richard Nixon. Jeff, aware of the Nixon “school on Saturday” rumor, was conflicted over whether he should include it in his presentation. Taking the high road, Jeff decided to omit the Nixon smear from his spiel, a decision he regretted when Nixon defeated Kennedy 15 to 14 in a 4th grade straw poll Jeff’s teacher conducted shortly after the two speeches were completed. I think we can all agree that a brief mention of Nixon’s so-called plans would have swayed at least the one vote Jeff needed to carry the day. Despite his failure to put JFK over the top, Jeff Banchero was bitten by the political bug, and eight years later would enjoy a successful run for Capuchino High School student body president…by all accounts, a clean campaign.
On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected our 35th President in one the closest contests in our nation’s history. Although he finished second nationally, Richard Nixon did manage to carry California, San Mateo County and Millbrae by razor thin margins…no votes among the country’s 2nd graders were ever recorded. In 1962, Nixon ran for Governor of California, and once again the “school on Saturday” myth reared its ugly head, and although fewer of us were buying it, Nixon was defeated anyway by Pat Brown. Of course we all know that Nixon wasn’t quite finished…his 1968 and 1972 Presidential victories, as well as Watergate were still in his future. It was in 1972 that I was able to participate in a presidential election for the first time, casting a futile vote for George McGovern. That year, I heard no rumors regarding Nixon pushing for a six day school week, but I was no longer in elementary school anyway, so it would not have affected my vote…in fact by then, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Notes: My dad once told me that he’d “crawl over broken glass” in order to vote against Richard Nixon. Indeed, he had plenty of chances…starting in 1950 when he ran for the U.S. Senate, through two runs as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate, one attempt at the governorship and three campaigns for President, Nixon’s name appeared seven times on statewide California election ballots (not including primaries). It’s interesting to note that it was only in his loss in the 1962 Governor’s race that he failed to carry California.