Mad Men S1E12: “Nixon vs. Kennedy”

“Decision 1960”

By Colin Hart

9.2 / 10

Recency bias can often cloud our judgment. The 2016 United States presidential election was the most important in our country’s history. No, wait, the 2020 election was the most important in our country’s history. Or, maybe Decision 2024 will be the election to end all elections.

Well, back in 1960, they were saying the same thing about Nixon vs. Kennedy. And the same apprehensions that dominate political discussions today still dominated political discussions back then. Inaccurate pollsters, media manipulation, allegations of voter fraud — sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

For some reason, we forget about it every four years.

Nixon vs. Kennedy election night party at Sterling Cooper

We also seem to forget that Mad Men is one of the greatest TV shows of all time. “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” the penultimate episode of season one, perfectly demonstrates why.

Because of its historical backdrop, the series will always stay relevant. But Mad Men’s greatness stems from its ability to adapt. Even though the times they are a-changin’, the characters aren’t. They merely react to the world around them, remaining the same group of lost souls from beginning of the decade to the end.

It’s on full display during Sterling Cooper’s election night office party. Instead of contemplating the magnitude of the moment, the election is just an excuse for the employees to indulge in a workplace bacchanal, drinking all the crème de menthe their stomachs can hold. You’d think it was New Year’s Eve.

By the end of the night, Harry Crane cheats on his wife with Pete Campbell’s young secretary, Hildy.

Dick Whitman in the Korean War

As the election determines the future of the agency, Don Draper finds himself unable to shake the memory of his past. With this, the central mystery of season one is finally revealed — in the Korean War, Don Draper a.k.a. Dick Whitman stole the identity of his CO by switching the dog tags from his dead body, a death that he inadvertently caused, by the way. We see the fateful events via flashback, and our perception of the series is changed forever.

Our hero is a deserter, a liar and a cheat — a fraud who jumped at the first available opportunity to escape his upbringing and start a new life. Dick Whitman died, so Don Draper could live.

Peter Campbell, who stole the package that Adam Whitman sent Don at the end of last episode, uses this information to blackmail Don after being passed over for a promotion. With his career and carefully-crafted persona in jeopardy, Don is sent into a tailspin. He once again finds himself in the arms of Rachel Menken, begging her to run away with him. But this time, Rachel sees right through the bullshit. She calls him a coward, and effectively ends their relationship.

On the other hand, Bertram Cooper doesn’t care about the bullshit. When Pete gives away Don’s secret in an effort to get him fired, the Sterling Cooper boss puts an end to the series’ greatest mystery as soon as it’s revealed:

“Mr. Campbell, who cares?” 

Bertram Cooper meme: "who cares?"

The fact that this information is revealed in the penultimate episode rather than the season finale only confirms that Cooper is right. It doesn’t matter who you were; all that’s important is who you are. Unfortunately for Don, it’s an answer he doesn’t know.

Even though Mad Men’s debut season has operated on a small scale, the slow-burn payoff has been worth every second. Sure, Cooper can brush off Don’s secret identity just like that, but for the viewer, the flashback scenes are monumental, delivering the same pathos that we saw in “5G” and “The Hobo Code,” but in a much more action-packed manner.

Overall, “Nixon vs. Kennedy” is a game-changer. But in the world of Mad Men, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Mergers and Acquistions

  • Example #2 of how recency bias can often cloud our judgment: “Nixon vs. Kennedy” was ranked #8 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time list, published in 2009. As good as the episode is, I’m not even sure I’d rank it among the top 10 Mad Men episodes. It only goes to show that TV has evolved significantly over the last decade.
  • On rewatch, it’s sort of hard to believe that the U.S. Army would mistake Private Dick Whitman for Lieutenant Donald Draper, even if Draper’s body was incinerated beyond recognition.
  • All aboard the Pete Campbell hate train! His unscrupulous actions in this episode had me wishing that Don, or Bert Cooper (or anyone, really), would punch him square in the face. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until season five for that to happen.
  • “Nixon vs. Kennedy” marks the first appearance of Herman “Duck” Phillips, the new head of accounts. The most interesting thing about him? His name is Duck.
  • The Sterling Cooper election party is a good example of how things that were normalized back then would be considered sexual assault today. Case in point: Ken Cosgrove chases down one of the secretaries, lifts up her skirt and checks the color of her panties. She laughs it off, and then shares a drink with him.
  • Paul Kinsey and Joan Holloway share a tender moment after everyone else has passed out. She tells him that he talks too much, and he asks her to dance. A possible romance between them had already been hinted at, though it seems that this scene represents a mutual split.
  • Also during the party, Paul stages a play that he’s been working on, and casts Joan and Salvatore Romano as the main characters. When they share a passionate kiss onstage, Joan detects something is amiss. If you’ll remember back to “The Hobo Code,” Sal’s closeted homosexuality is Mad Men‘s other big secret.
  • Don’s romance with Rachel comes to an abrupt end when she rejects his invitation to run away with him. She calls him a coward for wanting to abandon his family. If you’ll remember back to “The Hobo Code” once again, Don’s affair with Midge Daniels ended in a similar manner, after she rejected his offer of an impromptu weekend trip to Paris.
  • “Nixon vs. Kennedy” was written by Lisa Albert and Andre & Maria Jacquemetton, and directed by Alan Taylor.


  • “I don’t understand. I try to do my job. I follow the rules, and people hate me. Innocent people get hurt, and other people — people who are not good —  get to walk around doing whatever they want. It’s not fair.”
  • “Mr. Campbell, who cares?”
  • “The Japanese have a saying: a man is whatever room he is in. And right now, Donald Draper is in this room.”
  • “You got your whole life ahead of you. Forget that boy in the box.”
Mad Men S1E12: “Nixon vs. Kennedy”

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