Professor Emeritus Robert Schmuhl Writes "Why JFK v Nixon changed the face of American politics"

Author: Ragan Sernel

American Studies Professor Emeritus Robert Schmuhl wrote in the Irish Indepedent on September 26th, 2020:


Why JFK v Nixon changed the face of American politics

The 1960 US election was the first to feature TV debates - a tool that Kennedy used to turn the tide in his favour. But some argue it also heralded an era that put celebrity before policy, writes Robert Schmuhl

Robert Schmuhl

The 1960 American presidential election was a campaign like no other, featuring a multitude of historic firsts. It was the first time that both major-party candidates were born in the 20th century. It was the first time in 100 years that the Democratic Party nominated a senator, John F Kennedy, as its standard bearer. It was the first time Republicans chose a sitting vice-president, Richard Nixon, to pursue the nation's highest office. Perhaps most significantly, it was the first time that debates on television and radio brought the contenders into the country's living rooms.

It was a political - and cultural - contest different from any in the past, but one that served as a harbinger of the future.

Two navy veterans of World War II, both Kennedy and Nixon had arrived on Capitol Hill the same year, 1947, serving in the House of Representatives before winning Senate seats.

Kennedy, who had served eight years in the Senate by 1960, promised change with the pledge to "get America moving again", while Nixon offered continuity. President Dwight D Eisenhower had won re-election four years earlier with the rallying cry "Peace and Prosperity". As his two-term vice-president, Nixon used the same two words for his slogan and added a third in the middle: "experience".

His rival, the scion of a prominent Massachusetts family, was widely known - albeit less for developing policy or drafting legislation than other accomplishments. When he was 23, Kennedy published a book, Why England Slept, a revision of his Harvard undergraduate thesis about British appeasement of Nazi Germany. It became a surprise commercial success.

Three years later, as a navy lieutenant, Kennedy had helped save several sailors on his ship, the PT-109, after it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific Ocean near the Solomon Islands. Honoured with the US Navy's highest award for gallantry as well as a Purple Heart for his injuries, he returned home a war hero, with journalists chronicling his exploits in admiring detail.

Even greater fame outside politics arrived in 1956 with publication of his second book, Profiles in Courage. Vignettes of legislative bravery under pressure, the uplifting history became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Though Americans and others would later learn that a Kennedy aide, Theodore Sorensen, drafted much of the manuscript, Profiles in Courage established its putative author as a political figure with a literary bent. In speeches and interviews promoting the book, he came across as an articulate young personality with a ready smile and self-effacing demeanour.

Kennedy went to the 1956 Democratic national convention with enviable name recognition for a first-term senator. He traded on this to chase the vice-presidential nomination. He would lose narrowly, but political observers a took note of the 39-year-old's conspicuous charisma and ambition.

On January 2, 1960, he confirmed an open secret in circulation for three years. He told a crowd of 300 reporters and supporters he would seek the presidency. Near the end of his remarks, he said: "For 18 years, I have been in the service of the United States, first as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II and for the past 14 years as a member of the Congress." By refusing to elaborate on his legislative career, JFK signalled that he would pursue a different course in trying to move from Capitol Hill to the White House.

JFK's CV might have seemed slim compared with his Democratic competitors', such as Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader, and Hubert Humphrey, an influential senator for over a decade. Nixon, meanwhile, had substituted for Eisenhower during three medical emergencies and was recognised for his international expertise.

Glamorous wife

But Kennedy was already well-known as a public figure and popular interview subject, often with his glamorous wife, Jacqueline, at his side. Celebrity instead of experience became his calling card - and his ace in the hole.

Kennedy was also different from other presidential hopefuls for another significant reason. Not since New York governor Al Smith ran and lost in 1928 had a Catholic mounted a serious White House campaign. JFK was proud of his ethnic heritage - all eight of his great-grandparents immigrated from Ireland - but had to confront a repellent yet realistic question: would religious prejudice influence the outcome of his race?

To show he wanted to fight for the nomination, JFK competed in seven of that year's 16 state primaries. Critical one-on-one triumphs over Humphrey in Wisconsin and West Virginia proved pivotal in tamping down some of the religious bias.

At the mid-July national party convention in Los Angeles, Kennedy soundly defeated Johnson, by 806 delegates to 409, but then surprised everyone by bringing the Senate chieftain on to the ticket as the VP nominee. The duo, it was hoped, could project diverse experience, generational breadth and geographical scope - with Johnson, a Texan, charged with bringing southern Protestants into the Democratic column.

Kennedy and Nixon pinballed around America throughout the autumn, with the vice-president honouring a pledge - subsequently judged to be misguided - to visit every state, while the senator concentrated on battleground regions that pollsters determined would be decided by relatively few ballots.

Besides all the in-person politicking, the two candidates agreed to present themselves together in an unprecedented way: they scheduled four one-on-one debates to be broadcast live on television and radio.

Before the first encounter, 60 years ago today, Nixon led most polls. After it was over, JFK was perceived differently. He projected that indefinable trait: presidential timber. He was greeted with greater enthusiasm at events, and many voters now took him more seriously. At that first debate, Kennedy's persona and charisma lit up TV screens, while Nixon looked haggard and older than his 47 years. In his 1962 memoir, Six Crises, Nixon confessed: "I had concentrated too much on substance and not enough on appearance. I should have remembered that 'a picture is worth a thousand words'."

Each debate was watched by well over 60 million people - more than a third of the US population in 1960 - and a post-election survey discovered that 6pc of voters based their final decision solely on the debates. More probing of this data revealed that about four million voters made their choice because of the debates, with Nixon persuading 26pc of them and Kennedy 72pc.

The 1960 debates helped launch what has developed into a tradition of American presidential campaigns. Since 1976, Democratic and Republican candidates for the White House have sparred in front of millions of viewers and voters. This year's first debate between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden takes place in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Irish time. Two more follow next month.

When the polls opened on November 8, 1960, analysts predicted a close contest, and electioneering kept going throughout that day. With Americans west of the Mississippi River still voting, Republicans called on their most potent weapon, President Eisenhower, to rally their cause over the television airwaves from Washington. In a 10-minute speech, the five-star general-turned-politician delivered old-soldier inspiration that "the only way to win a battle is to fight right to the last minute. And we've got something to fight for."

'It was TV more than anything else'

To promote his vice-president, he got personal, saying the contest was "between experience and dedication and the role of serving the public rather than an attitude of arrogance and inexperience and trying to charm the public". For the first time in the campaign, Eisenhower mentioned Kennedy by name.

In the end, a margin of somewhere between 112,000 and 118,000 votes, out of more than 68 million, nudged JFK over the finish line. Nixon won 26 states to Kennedy's 22 (a third-party ticket took the other two). But Kennedy amassed 303 Electoral College votes to Nixon's 219, with JFK offering this postmortem comment: "It was TV more than anything else that turned the tide."

In his dramatic 1961 account of the election, The Making of the President 1960, Theodore H White noted: "Until the cameras opened on the senator and the vice-president, Kennedy had been the boy under assault and attack by the vice-president as immature, young, inexperienced. Now, obviously, in flesh and behaviour, he was the vice-president's equal."

For White, the power of television and how it projected the candidates' personalities produced worrying consequences: "rarely in American history has there been a political campaign that discussed issues less or clarified them less", he wrote.

His underlying theme was that Kennedy was forging a new type of presidential politics. The bold, young senator decided to take a chance without jumping the traditional hurdles, and he leveraged his celebrity to appeal to the public.

During Kennedy's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he asserted that "we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier - the frontier of the 1960s - a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils - a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats".

"New Frontier" endured as the catchphrase expressing the aspirations and challenges of his campaign and, later, his administration.

Sixty years ago, John Kennedy explored another frontier, one involving transformative innovations in electioneering. Mastery of them, as well as the words he spoke that still echo today, helped carry him to the White House - and on to the world stage.

Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and adjunct professor at Dublin City University. He is the author of 'The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump'