When John Fitzgerald Kennedy began his run for the White House there was plenty of excitement, plenty of anticipation. He was energetic, handsome, and from a famous Boston political family.
But his candidacy was far from a sure bet. Few would have predicted at the time the lasting impact his campaign would have on every election to follow.
Kennedy made the most of his youth and novelty, says historian Robert Dallek, author of several books about JFK.
“In 1960, when he ran for the presidency, first of all, if he won, he was going to be the youngest man ever elected to the White House,” Dallek says. “Secondly, he was going to be the first Catholic, so there was something fresh and new, and this is what he spun out in the campaign. He called his potential administration the ‘new frontier,’ and he said the torch was being passed to a new generation.”
Those things alone would not have made Kennedy’s 1960 campaign one for the ages. But when you toss in the rise of television and the way Kennedy harnessed the new medium’s power, Dallek says, it became the first truly modern presidential campaign.
“I think the most important moment was in that first television debate with Richard Nixon, when Kennedy came across as presidential,” he says. “As someone who was poised, who was witty, charming, handsome, and deserved to be president of the United States.”
Dallek says JFK was visionary in recognizing TV’s potential, and in knowing how to use new tools candidates suddenly had at their disposal. He brought that understanding to the fight for the nomination.
In 1960, presidential primaries in individual states were not new, but they were playing a more prominent role.
Filmmaker Robert Drew was given up-close access to Kennedy in Wisconsin to produce a documentary. No candidate had ever allowed cameras to have such an intimate view inside a presidential campaign before. It added to the Kennedy mystique.
With the help of sophisticated polling and television, Kennedy used the primaries to prove that he had national appeal and that a Catholic could win the votes of protestants.
His success in the primaries offset concerns about his youth — he was 42 when he announced his candidacy — and allowed him to counter the party establishment that would have preferred either Lyndon Johnson or Hubert Humphrey as their nominee.
JFK also tapped into popular culture to appeal to voters. His ads moved beyond the stodginess of past campaigns. There was no bigger star than Frank Sinatra, who reworked one of his big hits into a JFK jingle:
“Everyone wants to back Jack.
Jack is on the right track.
‘Cause he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes.
1960’s the year for his high hopes.
Come on and vote for Kennedy,
Vote for Kennedy, and we’ll come out on top.
Oops, there goes the opposition …”
It was the first campaign where there was so much focus on money — specifically the candidate’s family fortune and how that money helped fund TV spots, especially in key primary states. Those ads targeted specific kinds of voters, featuring ordinary citizens facing everyday problems.
Dallek notes that the Kennedy campaign also went negative, running a groundbreaking — and devastating — attack ad during the general election, featuring President Eisenhower, who was still in office.
In the ad, a reporter asks Eisenhower about Nixon’s experience: “I just wonder if you could give us an example of a major idea of his that you had adopted.” Eisenhower responds, to the laughter of others, “If you give me a week I might think of one. I don’t remember.”
“They understood that when you run a campaign like this,” Dallek says, “you not only have to present yourself as attractive, appealing, effective, promising, but you also have to show that your opponent has terrible weaknesses, things that you wouldn’t want to see in the White House.”
The Kennedy campaign also featured a strong outreach to Hispanic voters, presenting an ad with the candidate’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, speaking in Spanish.
“Now remember that Mrs. Kennedy was very pregnant during that 1960 campaign, so she couldn’t be out on the hustings all that much,” Dallek explains. “But she could do this ad in Spanish. Now, who knows how many votes it brought to Kennedy’s side, but it sure couldn’t have hurt.”
Dallek says it’s a very simple exercise: Look at the successful presidential campaigns since Kennedy in 1960, and see candidate after candidate taking inspiration from JFK, no matter their politics and personal style.
Dallek says no one has yet created a new template the way Kennedy did.
“Of course, the Obama campaign apparently used the modern technology and things like Facebook and Twitter to reach out to the public and a mass electorate,” he says. “But these are just variations on the kinds of things that Kennedy innovated in 1960. So recent and current candidates can look at the technology, but what they’re doing is, in a sense, taking a page from Kennedy’s book.”
President Kennedy died 50 years ago this coming week.