JFK’s legacy: The party’s over
The current commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy raises one lingering question: What explains JFK’s enduring hold on the national imagination?
Why does Kennedy figure so largely in American memory when his presidency was so short, his accomplishments so few (particularly in the domestic arena where he cannot compare with his successor) and his legacy transient?
So is our collective fascination with Kennedy just superficial — a product of the remarkably attractive, compellingly visual nature of his presidency?
After all, though presidents since William McKinley appeared on film and Dwight D. Eisenhower made brilliant use of the new medium of television, Kennedy truly became the first media president. His presidency remains primarily a series of images — from the hatless, apparently vigorous man at the lectern on Inauguration Day to the poignant photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket 50 years ago this month.
The Kennedy presidency marked a significant milepost in the long-term transformation of American politics — the half-century-long transition from a system in which parties structured national politics, with party organizations forming the primary intermediaries between politicians and citizens, to our political landscape now, in which the governors and the governed interact principally through mass media.
Crucial to this transformation had been a series of innovations that allowed candidates and office holders to communicate with voters, mobilize supporters, and raise funds without reliance on traditional party organizations (and their leaders) and, at the same time, eroded the barriers between politics and entertainment.
These innovations — the mobilization of celebrities on behalf of candidates; the use of advertising and public relations professionals to craft personas for politicians; the development of sophisticated campaign spots for film, radio and television; the careful management of presidential images — did not emerge overnight. Indeed, they had been developing since the 1920s. Not surprisingly, they first flourished in California.
In fact, Kennedy’s pioneering media campaign in 1960, from the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination to the general election, built on techniques that had flourished during the previous thirty years in California state politics. The Kennedy family had deep roots in the Hollywood studio system. JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, ran three production studios on the West Coast. Similar to other studio executives like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner, he actively crafted public personas for his employees, using the Hollywood “Dream Machine” to turn obscure actors into stars. Joe also took his sons on visits to Hollywood, during which John Kennedy cultivated relationships with celebrities, from Olivia de Havilland to his brother-in-law Peter Lawford and friend Frank Sinatra. They all taught him lessons in communication that would prove increasingly valuable as television and advertising took hold of American politics in the 1950s.
As JFK hit the primary trail in the winter of 1960, his campaign hired Jack Denove Productions to produce ads featuring memorable scenes captured from the campaign, often highlighting the clamorous crowds that greeted Kennedy in cities across the country. To ensure these enthusiastic crowds showed up for campaign appearances, brother and adviser Robert F. Kennedy flooded radio, newspapers, and television with advertisements for coming events. Kennedy frequently appeared with his entertainer friends, including Lawford, and Sinatra. Wherever he went in 1960, as Kennedy walked on to the stage, they played a special version of Sinatra’s hit tune, “High Hopes.”
The goal: to produce “Jack Kennedy fans” to prove his political authority. And it worked. Swarms of crowds greeted him and beseeched him with requests for autographs. Kennedy, observed journalists, was a “celebrity around here” because of the effectiveness of a “slick high-octane machine.”
For their part, Kennedy’s opponents dismissed him as an empty suit, criticizing his reliance on Hollywood style and image-making. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Kennedy’s rival in the primaries, mocked him as “Jack Who Has Jack.” Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon denounced JFK’s “cheap publicity” by the “Hollywood element that is supporting him.”
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, the man most observers considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 1960, later reflected that Kennedy “never said a word of importance in the Senate and he never did a thing. But somehow. . . he managed to create the image of himself as . . . a youthful leader who would change the face of the country. Now, I will admit that he looked awfully good on the goddamned television screen . . . but his growing hold on the American people was simply a mystery to me.”
The skepticism of Kennedy’s rivals made sense. They came of age in a political world far different from today — one in which state party organizations and local leaders controlled the nominating process. As late as 1968, in fact, the party brass still dominated the choice of presidential nominees. There were only 15 primaries that year, and they picked just 38 percent of the national convention delegates. Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for president that year without winning a single primary. He didn’t actively contest any of them — and he still won the nomination!
In 1960, Johnson followed that same insider strategy. Deciding against an open bid for the White House, he did not enter any primaries. There were 16 that year — though one had no candidates, just unpledged slates of delegates. Johnson figured that a deadlocked Democratic National Convention, unable to decide between numerous contenders, would turn to its most prominent national leader.
What Kennedy understood — and his rivals badly miscalculated — was that the system was changing. By winning primaries and building popular excitement for his celebrity image, Kennedy convinced party leaders that he would be a strong, attractive candidate in November. He won the nomination on the first ballot.
American politicians took notice — no one more so than Nixon. In 1968, he consciously embraced the Kennedy model he had denounced eight years earlier. In the words of one top aide, Nixon understood that “today’s candidate must learn to grapple, to cope, and to conquer television — refine and project a ‘saleable’ television image — in order to become attractive to the electorate.”
Nixon assembled a crackerjack team of media consultants, including future Fox News honcho Roger Ailes. His team used powerful images to craft some of the most potent, innovative spots in campaign history. And to connect to suburban audiences, the candidate appeared on the hit show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to famously declare “Sock it to me!” as other celebrities regularly did.
Kennedy thus helped usher in the modern media-driven celebrity presidency. He consciously appealed to television audiences as media consumers first, and voters second. In doing this, he dramatically advanced the breakdown of the barrier between politics and entertainment.
Kennedy, for example, made a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with host Jack Paar. Following his lead, Nixon began to resurrect his political career in 1963 with a similar interview with Paar. In 1968, to win the presidency, Nixon stepped it up and went prime time on Laugh-In. Humphrey refused his invitation to the show, thinking it undignified. Nobody would repeat that mistake again.
Kennedy’s media presidency also catalyzed the weakening of party machines and the advent of the plebiscitary presidency. Despite his innovations, to win the presidency in 1960 JFK still needed powerful political machine bosses like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Party leaders still clung to power in 1968. But after that year, things began to change. Candidates sought much more influence with grassroots activists, ordinary voters and celebrities who could play “media games” to help establish the credibility and bankroll the campaign of primary contenders. Instead of the 16 primaries in 1960, there were 34 in 1980, determining three-quarters of the delegates.
For better or worse, Americans today still navigate the political landscape that remains JFK’s enduring legacy.
PHOTO (TOP): President John F. Kennedy reaches out to the crowd gathered at the Hotel Texas Parking Lot Rally in Fort Worth, November 22, 1963. REUTERS/Cecil Stoughton/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
PHOTO (INSERT 1): The 1960 Democratic National Convention. REUTERS/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and John F. Kennedy arriving at Southampton, England, July 2, 1938. REUTERS/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
PHOTO (INSERT 3): John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic convention. REUTERS/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
PHOTO (INSERT 4): 1960 Election Campaign brochure. Printed by the Massachusetts Committee for John F. Kennedy for President of the U.S. REUTERS/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library