Race for the White House: Nixon Vs: JFK (2016)
Season 1, Episode 1
Surface-Level Coverage of the Famous 1960 Campaign
19 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Over 2.5 million viewers tuned in to the premiere of CNN's series called "Race for the White House." According to reporter Lisa de Moraes, that is "the highest-rated CNN original series telecast ever." But it turns out that there has been surprisingly little critical commentary about the program. With all of those viewers, where is the debate about the quality and value of the opening program? This series is narrated by Kevin Spacey, and the program seeks to hype the amoral nature of American politics based on Spacey's potboiler "House of Cards," where he and Robin Wright perform their imitation of the Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth. The CNN show includes such blazing headlines as "Dirty Races" and "Cutthroat Candidates" at the heart of American presidential campaigns.

The opening program covers all-too-familiar ground in the heavily documented race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. But the early portion of the program focuses on what may have been the most unprincipled politician in American history: Lyndon Baines Johnson. No one recognized this better than Bobby Kennedy, who, as Jack's campaign manager, was devastated to have to offer the vice presidency to Johnson, instead of the Kennedys' original choice, Stuart Symington, the Democratic Senator from Missouri.

The program correctly identifies that at the summer Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, Johnson would stop at nothing to have himself placed on the ticket as JFK's vice presidential candidate. But after disclosing that LBJ was prepared to reveal publicly the medical history of Jack Kennedy, commentator Evan Thomas casually asserts that the choice to place LBJ on the ticket was "one of the smartest things Kennedy did." The filmmakers totally drop the ball in failing to grasp that Johnson was in effect blackmailing Kennedy. Moreover, a close study of the political career of LBJ uncovers not only an unscrupulous, but a nearly pathological and vaulting ambition.

The program offers good coverage of JFK's exemplary speech in Houston on September 12, 1960, a turning point in the campaign when Kennedy single-handedly diffused the religious controversy as American's first Catholic president. The film also rehashed the four live televised debates in which Kennedy was clearly the more confident and competent speaker.

But the program was disappointing in its coverage of Nixon. The commentators in this program were ill-prepared and incapable of probing beneath the layers of political intrigue to assess the essence of a man like Richard M. Nixon. A political retread like Pat Buchanan lamely attempts to spin the discussion away from the personal liabilities of Nixon. Astonishingly, at the program's close, there is an attempt to suggest that Nixon first got his idea for "dirty tricks" from the Kennedy people, planting the seeds for the Watergate scandal! The significant point never identified was that it was obvious from his political past, as well as his conduct on the 1960 campaign trail, that Richard Nixon was as unfit for the presidency in 1960 as he was in the elections that he won in 1968 and 1972. The program indicated that columnist Joseph Alsop wrote that Nixon looked like "a suspect in a statutory rape case" during the first debate, but there was no attempt to understand the depth of Nixon's psychosis that is well chronicled.

In sum, this program was prepared much like a Wikipedia article with basic information, but no substantial interpretation of the seminal 1960 election. Like CNN news reporting in general, there was no evidence of insightful investigative journalism or tackling controversial topics that might help to shed light on the current dysfunctional presidential campaign of 2016.
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