Mad Men Season 1 Episode 12: “Nixon vs. Kennedy”

“Nixon vs. Kennedy” Review

Grade: A

Man of Steel.

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 more important. 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 overlook the indisputable fact that Mad Men remains one of the greatest TV shows of all time. “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” the penultimate episode of season one, perfectly demonstrates the unique power that the series is capable of.

Because of its historical backdrop, the Mad Men will always stay relevant. But the show’s true greatness lies in its ability to adapt to any setting. Even though the times they are a-changin’, the characters themselves are not. They merely react to the world around them, remaining the same group of lost souls from beginning of the decade to 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, 23-year-old Dick Whitman stole the identity of the real Lt. Donald Draper by switching dog tags with his dead body — a death that he inadvertently caused. We see the fateful events via flashback, and our perception of the series is changed forever.

The man we know as Don Draper, our fearless 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 Donald Draper could live.

Pete Campbell, who stole the package that Adam Whitman sent Don at the end of last episode, is also privy to this realization. He uses the package (which contained photos of Private Whitman in the army) to blackmail Don 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 ends their romance.

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 CEO of Sterling Cooper 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 next week’s 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 can’t figure out.

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. The storyline makes for a rewarding reveal that was worth the wait.

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?


  • 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. Wouldn’t there be plenty of people who knew what the lieutenant looked like? It’s amazing that no one questioned “Don’s” identity.
  • I’ll admit, the pre-“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” timeline in Mad Men can be a little wonky. Don is about 34-years-old in the pilot, which takes place in early 1960. That means he stole Lt. Draper’s identity in the Korean War only 10 years prior, which would have made him 24-years-old at the time.
  • Dick accidentally drops his lighter when smoking a cigarette, which leads to the explosion that kills Lt. Draper. It was only an accident, but the fact that Don immediately switches the ID tags shows his cowardice. He lives with the guilt of desertion (to both family and country) every day, which is probably the reason he is the way he is. The Don we know doesn’t know how to stop running.
  • 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.
  • Seriously, though, Pete is at an all-time level of revolting in “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” And that’s coming from someone who actually likes Pete as a character (he’s been on the upswing since “New Amsterdam“). But everything he does is straight up detestable.
  • To continue the Pete Campbell rant, it’s amazing that his wife, Trudy, is the kindest and most respectable character in the entire series. He doesn’t deserve her at all.
  • “Nixon vs. Kennedy” marks the first appearance of Herman “Duck” Phillips, whom Don has hired as the new Head of Account Services. The most interesting thing about him? His name is Duck. And he apparently had to resign from his last job because he was a raging alcoholic who disgraced his family.
  • The Sterling Cooper election party is a good example of how things that were “normal” 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 Season 1 Episode 12: “Nixon vs. Kennedy”

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