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1960: The Road To Camelot
F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon exited their party's conventions on a positive
track. The candidates for the 1960 presidential election had won
their nominations on the first ballot. Kennedy was the first to be
nominated. He had won impressive victories over Hubert Humphrey in the
primaries. Two of those victories, West Virginia and Wisconsin, proved
that he had the ability to clench the vote in heavily Protestant states.
Kennedy's Catholicism had cast doubt on his ability to win in a national
election, but the Democrats laid aside their reservations after this litmus
test. Upon receiving the selection, JFK made a bold move by choosing
Lyndon Johnson as a running mate. This move concerned some of Kennedy's
Northern confidants, but the contrast in style made for a powerful ticket.
Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader, was an old school politician who was more
than willing to hammer away at political opposition. Johnson's addition
not only brought on board a fighter, but it also provided a better chance of
victory in key swing states. Two weeks after the Democratic convention,
the Republicans nominated the serving Vice President, Richard Nixon, without
hesitation. Once the opponents had solidified their candidacies, the race
was on to stake out their own territory.
Kennedy and Nixon amazingly presented similar agendas. Both spoke of progress and change. Kennedy talked of a "New frontier." He wanted to develop new technologies and make advancements in space exploration. He also wanted to confront the demons of the past like poverty, war, and ignorance in order to provide for a brighter future. Nixon repeated the message of a brighter future, but he echoed the sentiments through Republican themes such as increased emphasis on private industry and decreased government spending. Although the methods of achieving their goals were different, the campaign themes were closely aligned. Besides the overall message of, Kennedy and Nixon shared similar beliefs in the threat of Communism, the need to strengthen the military, and other foreign policy issues. The similarity in policy and ideas forced the campaigns to seek out other differences.
The 1960 election became a debate over experience. Although the two candidates had both come to Congress in 1946, Nixon tried to strengthen his position by playing up his foreign policy work as Vice President. Also, at forty-three, Kennedy's youthful appearance did not help to discourage the attacks of Nixon. The Republican nominee had found a weak spot in the Kennedy armor and seemed to be gaining some momentum in the race. This was extremely important because, at the time, Republicans were in the minority nationwide. The run for the White House was going to be tight and any small advantage could pay enormous dividends. No sooner than Nixon had found his focal point, the first of several media oriented events weighed in on the eventual outcome of the election.
Nixon's focus on an experience in foreign and domestic policy was undercut by one of his own. A tired and irritated President Eisenhower was anxious to end a press conference. A reporter asked what major decisions the Vice-President had participated in making. Eisenhower responded, "If you give me a week, I might think of one." The response was not meant as a slight to Nixon, but as an attempt to make light of his own mental fatigue. Never the less, the slip came to the delight of Democrats and stimulated JFK to face challenge Nixon's charges of inexperience. Kennedy quipped, " Mr. Nixon is experienced, experienced in the policies of retreat, defeat, and weakness." The Eisenhower comment was displayed prominently in the press and the democratic nominee's show of feistiness also drew good media coverage. Suddenly, Nixon's focus did not hold as much value. With the attention on experience holding less importance, John F. Kennedy was able to turn his attention to the defense of another weakness. Once again, the media played a large role.
Although Kennedy had won the party leaderships confidence, he still feared that his Catholicism might hurt him with the general voting population. In a televised appearance before the Ministerial Association of Houston, JFK assured the audience that he was for the definite separation of church and state, against federal funding of parochial schools, and that the Constitution was above the dictates of the church when it came politics. Protestants across the nation saw the news clips of Kennedy making the resounding statements on the irrelevance of his religion concerning office. Kennedy's authoritative stance was enhanced by his television appeal, an appeal that would prove worthy in the campaigns next big media play.
After the Republican National Convention, Richard Nixon had made a promise to campaign in all fifty states. Unfortunately, a knee infection sidelined the candidate for two weeks. Instead of following the advice of friends, he struck out on the grueling stretch in less than perfect health. By the time Nixon wound down the tour, the tired candidate had to turn his attention to the first televised debate. Nixon had been a champion debater and welcomed the opportunity to spar with his opponent on national TV, but as the evening played out, the subtleties of media politics lined up against the Vice-President.
Kennedy had spent a tremendous amount time preparing for this event. The recent success of his answers on religion proved that television had immense potential for his success. In addition, a strong showing against the favored Nixon would establish credibility on the issues and further boost public confidence in his leadership ability. The Vice-President also came prepared, but when the debate began, the outcome, was not decided as much by substance as by appearance.
JFK was able to put Nixon on the defensive with his unexpected grasp of the facts, but Nixon held his own in responding to the Kennedy criticisms. The major story of the debate became the photogenic appeal of the attractive Kennedy versus the sickly look of the worn down Nixon. Several factors contributed to the poor image of Nixon. His poor health leading up to the debate had resulted in a drastic weight loss. A freshly painted backdrop had dried in a lighter shade of gray that blended in with the color of his suit. During cutaways, the cameras caught Nixon wiping perspiration from his forehead while Kennedy was taking him to task on the issues. As for Kennedy, he excelled in front of the camera. When the debate ended, a large majority of television viewers recognized Kennedy as the winner. To contrary, most radio listeners thought that Nixon had done as well as, if not better than Kennedy had. The results of the following debates were closer in outcome, but the viewing audience was not as large. In the end, Kennedy had used the television medium to his advantage and further established his media advantage.
Nixon also ran into bad luck on other media fronts. Kennedy scored well with blacks when he came to the aid of Martin Luther King, Jr. after an arrest in Atlanta. The Vice-President was caught in a conflict of interest and had to remain silent on the well-publicized event. Kennedy used the press coverage to fortify his compassionate, charismatic image. Late in the race, Eisenhower stepped up his support for Nixon. This action was balked at by the Democrats and possibly made the Vice-President look incapable of winning the election on his own. The perceived weakness was eventually echoed in the press. Combined with the Nixon's poor showing in the first debate, the Eisenhower gaffe, and previous triumphs by Kennedy in the media, small press related miscalculation such as these took there toll on the Republican nominee.
In November, the election was as close as was predicted. Kennedy won the popular vote 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. The electoral margin was a more comfortable 303 to 219 win. With the election ending in such a close finish, the power of Kennedy's media presence was immeasurable. The importance of television appeal has only increased since 1960. The successes and failures in the campaign of that year laid the groundwork for future media strategy. John F. Kennedy continued the grow his charismatic image while creating Camelot, and eight years later, Richard Nixon took his hard earned lessons from 1960 and used the media to facilitate his rise to the presidency.