A Letter to Wes on Pete Campbell and JFK-Nixon
I’m sorry Wes, but I think you’re a little late to the party here. The chief conflict in Mad Men, from season one on, has been Pete vs. Don. And yes, they are more similar than they appear.
In my opinion, the first season of Mad Men was one perfect tightly-conceived thematic arc: the Kodak speech, the Kennedy-Nixon stuff, Dick Whitman’s younger brother. Matt Wiener and company gave us just enough dirt on Don Draper to keep us intrigued and keep us watching. In my opinion, the show hasn’t hit those heights since, nor should we realistically expect it to get there again. It’s a common sequel problem; you can only pull the curtain back once.
With the show approaching its end (more or less), it’s circled back to its beginnings. At the end of the first season, Pete Campbell discovered that Don Draper was a fraud. He tried to blackmail Don into promoting him, and when Don refused, he told Bert Cooper everything he knew. Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy defeats Nixon in the1960 Presidential election – an election that was dramatically influenced by the way these two candidates appeared in their first debate, the first time these debates were broadcast on television. Viewers saw a confident, rested and well-prepared Kennedy, and a tired and unshaven Nixon. They didn’t know that Nixon had been campaigning up until a few hours before the debates, while Kennedy had been resting and preparing for days. They didn’t know that Nixon had refused television make-up. They probably didn’t think about how different these two men were: Nixon grew up in poverty, JFK was the scion of a wealthy and powerful political family. That debate is taught us one of the most depressing lessons about American politics in the last century: appearances matter much more than you might think. That’s some pretty good thematic material for a show about advertising.
The Pete-Don and Kennedy-Nixon juxtaposition isn’t a coincidence, either. At a meeting, Pete accidentally reveals that he’s voting for JFK (in a way that makes the older members of the firm – and the viewers as well -.want to smack him across the face). Don tells Roger privately that he sees himself in Richard Nixon. Pete is from a wealthy New York family, Don is the dirt-poor son of a prostitute. We could keep going, but the salient point here is that Don is a charming version of Nixon, and Pete is a less-charming version of Kennedy. And as much as people would like to claim that one was a better person than the other, political views aside, they were moral equivalents. Kennedy may have raped an intern as President of the United States. Nixon::Watergate. Was one of them really a better human being than the other? Bert Cooper was right: who cares?
So for us viewers, the whole Pete vs. Don debate boils down to “who do we like more?” And Mad Men did something brilliant here, casting incredibly likable actor as an utterly reprehensible character. Let’s be clear, Jon Hamm isn’t just a jawline, he’s also a really likable dude. And that likability helps you forget some of those horrible Don Draper sequences. And this is more or less true to life: there are people so charming or attractive or charismatic that they can get away with more.
Pete Campbell, on the other hand, is none of these things. So he pays for most of indiscretions. For him to walk into Bert Coopers’ office claiming the moral high-ground wasn’t just slimy, hypocritical and underhanded on his part, it was his mistake to assume that there was some code of conduct that applied to Don and him equally.