The 1960 presidential campaign taught me the way politics should be.
By Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr.
Fifty years ago this fall America stood at a critical crossroads in its history. The choice was between continuing the eight-year legacy of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower by electing Vice President Richard M. Nixon as president, or embracing the challenge of a New Frontier advanced by the youthful senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. The nation was in the midst of a cold war with the Soviet Union and its allies, and the issues focused on the arms race and the space race, raising the question of America’s supremacy in the world. For the first time the two major party candidates had agreed to a series of television debates that would influence the outcome of the election.
That September, 1960, I had just turned twelve years old and was entering Lincoln Junior High School on Stevens Avenue in Portland. I was assigned to Division 7-F, Room 206, and found that my home room teacher, Virginia Mingo, was also my social studies instructor. During the first class, Mrs. Mingo announced that our division would stage a mock presidential election in which there would be Republican and Democratic chairs who would conduct campaigns for Nixon and Kennedy, culminating in the chairs debating each other before the class. Shortly before election day in November, the division would vote to decide which candidate it favored.
Entering junior high school already interested in history and politics, I volunteered to run the Republican campaign. My parents were Eisenhower Republicans, who crossed party lines to support Edmund Muskie for governor in 1954 and 1956 and for the U.S. Senate in 1958. I never thought twice about my party affiliation.
Peter Kyros, Jr., quickly emerged as the Democratic chair. The son of a prominent attorney who was about to embark on a political career, Peter was completely at home in politics. At age twelve he knew Edmund Muskie and Frank Coffin on a first name basis and had met John F. Kennedy. Peter was an articulate, personable, and well-informed advocate for his cause — in short, a worthy opponent.
Soon Room 206 was covered with Nixon and Kennedy posters, bumper stickers, brochures, and buttons obtained from the Republican headquarters in Congress Square and the Democratic headquarters in Monument Square. The amount of material probably produced a significant financial drain on both campaigns that fall.
Such was my enthusiasm for our junior high school campaign that I wrote a letter to Richard Nixon to describe my ardent efforts on his behalf. In due time I received back a signed response on vice presidential stationary thanking me for my support. This letter seemed at the time like a communication from on high, and I proudly shared it with my fellow students, never realizing that it was probably a form letter signed by an auto pen or staff member. Real or not, this Nixon signature now resides with other presidential autographs at the Maine Historical Society.
As election day neared, Peter and I played the roles of Kennedy and Nixon in debating the major issues of the contest. When the votes were counted, Nixon had achieved a narrow victory in Division 7-F. So confident was I of Nixon’s triumph that I purchased a Republican victory cake in the shape of an elephant from Leach’s Bakery in Woodfords Corner and shared it with my classmates. That was my first lesson in not assuming the outcome of an election until all the votes are counted.
John F. Kennedy won the White House on November 8, 1960, by a narrow margin. The trappings of the campaign were taken down, and my home room assumed an air of normalcy for the first time since early September. During these two exciting months, Peter Kyros and I had been friendly rivals. To my surprise, Peter called me just before Thanksgiving, asking if I would manage his campaign for student council. I agreed, and we made plans to meet over the Thanksgiving break to develop a campaign strategy.
That call began one of my most cherished friendships, ended only by Peter’s untimely death in 2003. Peter would serve on the vice presidential campaign staff of Edmund Muskie in 1968 and of Walter Mondale in 1976, the latter experience gaining him a position in the Carter-Mondale Administration as chair of a White House committee to coordinate the arts. As for me, I have worked for the state of Maine in the historic preservation field for nearly four decades and was appointed State Historian in 2004. I still have my campaign memorabilia from that epic political contest of a half century ago.