The Birth of Modern Presidential Campaigning

JFK sailing
John F. Kennedy on the US Coast Guard Yacht "Manitou" in 1962. Photo credit: U.S. National Archives / Wikimedia

John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign forever changed the way candidates run for office. When he took on Vice President Richard Nixon, Kennedy realized that he could only win if he made the campaign about himself and not his platform.

Ever since, candidates across all levels of government and in democracies the world over have tried to replicate the Kennedy model of self-marketing. In 2008, for example, Barack Obama rode his message of “Hope and Change” into the White House.

And in this cycle, Donald Trump has taken the personal image-centric campaign to a whole new level. The Republican frontrunner has not bothered to articulate any detailed (or coherent) platform. Instead, Trump simply promises frustrated Americans that he will make the country great again because he is a “winner.”

The following documentary shows how it all began: JFK personified excitement and vigor on camera.. Together with his father’s money and clever campaigning, it was the image he portrayed, more than anything else, that propelled him to victory over Nixon. Kennedy spent lavishly, worked the press, lied about his health problems, and used the new medium of television to his advantage.

Political positions aside, the parallels to this year’s race are too numerous to mention and make this documentary truly fascinating.


Related frontpage panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from John F Kennedy Official Portrait (White House / JFK Library)

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4 responses to “The Birth of Modern Presidential Campaigning”

  1. 0040 says:

    JFK skillfully avoided WW3 and gave America’s middle class 20 more good years before Reagan began its destruction in earnest.

  2. 0040 says:

    I saw the Nixon/Kennedy debate live . It has never been matched in it’s effect on the populace .

  3. Hugh O'Neill says:

    James Douglass’ “JFK & The Unspeakable” makes clear that JFK had to play a certain role that would not frighten the MIC too much. Never forget Ike’s Valedictory. However, his Inaugural address strikes the perfect balance and tries to unite the hawks and doves. The speech that killed JFKK and the hope for Peace was 10th June 1963 to the American University. Listen & Mourn. For in the final analysis, we all live on the same small planet, we breathe the same air, we cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal. Amen.

  4. Hugh O'Neill says:

    I have just watched the attached ghastly BBC hatchet job on JFK. Whatever JFK is, says or does is contemptible to Andrew Marr. The BBC has plumbed new depths of gutter journalism. And yet, despite it all, one comes away liking JFK even more, because of Andrew Marr. BBC shoots itself in the foot once again.