Analyzing JFK's Legacy: A Shift from Policy to Personality

Sunday marks what would have been former president John F. Kennedy’s 94th birthday, a president who was one of the first transformative leaders in using the media to spread his message. During the 1960 election, Kennedy revolutionized the campaigning process; his media savvy during the first televised presidential debate with Richard Nixon forever changed the way American voters judge candidates and how politicians wage their campaigns. While both Nixon and Kennedy were quite close in their policy positions, Kennedy’s on-screen charisma and personality helped sway the 70 million voters who watched the debate in his favor (Indeed, those who heard the debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner).

But in shifting the focus of campaigning away from actual policy and toward personality and media charm, Kennedy may have inadvertently altered American politics for the worse. While I mean no disrespect to Kennedy’s legacy, the political media revolution he created has had dire effects on campaigning that can be clearly seen today: Candidates are no longer voted in because they have strong platforms or professionally debate the issues. Instead, the media – and now, specifically, candidates’ ability to utilize social media – has become the strongest determinate of who is voted into office.

The 1960 debates between Kennedy and Nixon were the first to be televised in American history. Before the debates began, Nixon injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate, he was still 20 pounds underweight and looked weak. Nixon also refused to use make-up to improve his color, and his suit blended with the set.

On the other hand, Kennedy campaigned in California and had a tan when he entered the debates. He also used make-up, wore a dark blue suit to contrast the background, and spoke with the television set directors the day before airing. More importantly, Kennedy appeared to speak towards the audience because his posture faced the television camera, increasing his popularity among voters.

Prior to the debates, voters doubted Kennedy’s experience and maturity level; afterwards, of the 4 million voters who made up their minds as a result of the debates, 3 million voted for Kennedy. His charming appearance, in addition to his family’s wealth and status, gave him a natural edge in front of the camera. He seemed relatable to everyday Americans because of his media manipulation, a major component of his presidential victory.

Ever since Kennedy and the 1960 election, media and politics have gone hand-in-hand. Without a skilled use of media, a candidate now has very little chance of winning. Publicity was always important for campaigning, but the rise of television (and now the internet) has made candidates’ P.R. skills even more essential in vying for the presidency. For instance, in the 2008 election, President Obama attracted voters through his team’s expert use of social media. Obama took advantage of social media unlike any other candidate, a strategy which clearly paid off.

Social media allows Americans to “get to know” a candidate on a personal level. They feel more comfortable thinking they know who a candidate is based on recognizing their name and face. But that’s the problem; social media doesn’t allow Americans to really know what the issues are or what a politician even stands for. You would think, with the internet spewing out as much information as it does, the rise of social media would put more emphasis on the issues and make people more informed. Unfortunately, most remain just as uniformed.

Thanks to Kennedy, the media began to take over politics as we knew it in the ‘60s. Kennedy helped to create a culture in which the average American no longer focuses on what’s important when choosing a president. Now, in the age of social media, today’s candidates vie for Facebook “Likes” and dumb down their policies to 140 character Tweets. 

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Emily Dobler

I'm very interested in domestic politics and coverage in Washington D.C. since they are so accessible and relevant to our everyday lives. I'm currently a junior double majoring in Professional Writing and English at Carnegie Mellon University. I'm the Editor-in-Chief for The Tartan, Carnegie Mellon's student-run newspaper. I love the Daily Show and the Colbert Report!

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