President John F. Kennedy had a slip of paper he liked to carry around in his pocket: 118,574, it read, reminding him of the sliver of votes by which he won the White House.
But the 1960 election was even closer than that: the votes had barely been counted before Richard Nixon's supporters were telling him about precincts in Chicago where after forty-three people had voted, the machine had counted 121. Kennedy had won Illinois by 8,800 votes and the ballots were quickly destroyed. Many close friends as well as party officials urged Nixon to press for an investigation; his daughters would donate their Christmas money to the recount effort.
Kennedy knew that the way the election played out posed a threat to his legitimacy. His first mission was to establish, clearly and firmly, his rightful claim to an office he had won so narrowly. Nixon wasn't saying anything yet. He hadn't demanded a recount, but hadn't explicitly rejected the idea either.
The stakes could not have been higher, and it is for precisely such missions as this that the Presidents Club, the informal but real fraternity of sitting and former presidents, exists.
In the days immediately following the vote, an exhausted Kennedy was resting at his father's sprawling white stucco mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. Nixon and his family had flown down to Miami, crushed, exhausted. The fact that both men were in Florida provided the opportunity for a conspicuous parley.
The president-elect's father, Joe Kennedy, called his old friend Herbert Hoover; wouldn't it be a good idea for the two competitors to meet, to show the country and the world that all was well and let bygones be bygones?
Which is how it came to pass that on a Saturday night, Dick and Pat Nixon were having dinner with friends at the Jamaica Inn in Key Biscayne, when word came from their hotel that President Hoover was trying to reach Nixon. So Nixon found the restaurant phone.
"Hello, Chief," Nixon said.
Hoover did not waste any time.
"The Ambassador [Joe Kennedy] has just called me and suggested that it would be a good idea for you and the President-elect to get together for a visit," Hoover said. If Nixon agreed, Kennedy would call him to arrange the logistics.
Nixon asked Hoover's advice. As Nixon recalled it, Hoover replied that "I think we are in enough trouble in the world today; some indications of national unity are not only desirable but essential." As Hoover remembered it, Nixon resisted being party to what he called "a cheap publicity stunt," but Hoover threw that right back at him. Newly elected presidents, he informed Nixon, don't need any help getting publicity. "This is a generous gesture on his part, and you ought to meet it."
So Nixon agreed. Back at the dinner table, he actually seemed elated at the call. But he still thought that just in case, he should check in with Eisenhower first, so Nixon placed a call to the White House operator and asked if she could patch him through to Augusta, Georgia, where Eisenhower was on vacation. "He knew that it was my practice never to call him outside office hours unless the matter was of great importance," Nixon said. When the operator got Eisenhower on the line, Nixon told him about Hoover's proposal and asked what he thought.
Eisenhower was just as blunt.
"You would look like a sorehead if you didn't," he said. They talked for a few minutes before another call came in to interrupt dinner; this time, the maître d' said, it was Kennedy himself.
"I would like to fly down from Palm Beach to have a chat with you if it won't interfere with your vacation," Kennedy said, and Nixon agreed, even offered to make the trip himself, adding, what were, for Kennedy, the magic words: "After all, that's the proper thing to do in view of last Tuesday's results."
No recriminations: no demand for a deal or a recount. They agreed to meet at the Key Biscayne hotel on Monday.
"As I hung up and walked slowly back to our table," Nixon recalled, "it dawned on me that I had just participated in a probablyunprecedented series of conversations. In the space of less than ten minutes, I had talked to a former President of the United States, the present president and the President-elect!"
And they, in turn, had all talked not just to the current vice president, but a future president.
From a distance of more than half a century, this encounter seems unimaginable; members of the two parties struggle to carry on a civil conversation, much less put aside self interest for a larger goal. But presidents, to this day, often speak a different dialect, with a common code: the office matters more than the occupant, and so the presidents, past and present, protect the presidency, like a shadow secret service patrolling outside the Oval Office.
Adapted from The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, published by Simon and Schuster