John F. Kennedy was the man on the forefront of what we see now as the modern presidential campaign.
Admittedly, I don’t know a whole lot about John F. Kennedy. I know his family was a big family of politicians, his religion was questioned when he was campaigning to become president, and he was tragically murdered during his term as president. When I think of JFK, what comes to my mind in the most prevalent manner is his status as a media icon, not an “American” icon.
It’s easy to mention the famous presidential debate between him and Richard Nixon in 1960, which accompanies that legendary story that everyone hearing the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, while everyone seeing it on television thought Kennedy won. What I think we don’t do is consider that debate within the context of the time and what that thinking truly means. Kennedy was a master of crafting his image. Because television began to become a major component of life in general at the time, he knew that his life would be watched more closely than others, and instead of “acting normal,” Kennedy chose to play to that audience. This is done so commonly now, but it was revolutionary in its time. He used modern media strategically to reach out to audiences and appear more desirable to people nationwide. This gave him an edge and appeal that Nixon just didn’t have.
As someone who not only has an incredible amount of exposure to media, but also someone who wants to work in some sort of media in the future, Kennedy’s image is fascinating to me. He was all over the place. He wasn’t a presidential candidate, he was a celebrity running for president. His face was on merchandise, there was a film made about his fight for the primary against Hubert H. Humphrey, and Frank Sinatra even changed the lyrics of one of his songs to be about him. His media conglomerate was massive in the budding days of the media itself.
“TV is an image medium,” writes broadcast historian J. Fred MacDonald on his website. “It thrives on pictures, attractive personalities, action, and lightness. It was no coincidence that early television popularized the flamboyance of wrestlers like Gorgeous George and the compelling movement of roller derby.” What’s interesting to me is that this same sentiment is true right now. Kennedy’s media image was so incredibly ahead of its time. Ronald Reagan ran twenty years after Kennedy did, and his television image during his campaign is less lauded than Kennedy’s is even though Reagan was an actor. That’s preposterous.
When Jackie Kennedy compared the family to Camelot, she was further playing on media and the public’s perception. “The popular media and the general public seized upon Camelot to represent the Kennedy era, even though the values associated with the myth are incompatible with the reality of Kennedy’s life.” (Brigance 2). Even though those values may not be representative of the true feelings of the time, this was not said accidentally. She likely said this knowing full well the public would make the connection, that they would embrace this crafted image, an image created in the same way that John F. Kennedy create his own image in the media. Except after his death, Jackie Kennedy was doing it for the whole family.
Nowadays, media is a major part of presidential campaigns. It’s how every common person takes in news and information. Many people only see modern candidates only through television and computers. New forms of media, such as social media, allow for easier construction of narrative and image. However, it’s fascinating to me that Kennedy was able to do this in an era where that was unheard of, and would continue to be unheard of for a long while.
Brigance, Linda Czuba. “For One Brief Shining Moment: Choosing to Remember Camelot”. Studies in Popular Culture 25.3 (2003): 1–12. Web.
Macdonald, J. Fred. “Television and the Red Menace: The Video Road to Viet Nam.” John F. Kennedy and Television. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.