It is impossible to separate the major events of American history in the early 1960’s from the development of American television. They are inextricably intertwined. The John F. Kennedy years stand out as an era bracketed by TV milestones. In the years between the Great Debates and the network coverage of the assassination and funeral of the President, television became truly central to American life.
In the history of political communication 1960 represents “a genuine turning-point and a natural dividing line.” The new television gained a dominant position among the mass-media and this fact had already been realized by the mid-50s.
One of the most television target of that time was the presidential candidate (and then president) John F. Kennedy. “No stranger to the camera, JFK developed as president an ongoing relationship with the reporters and photographers who were intent on documenting his every move, to the extent that in later years, his close ties with the media were held responsible for obscuring some of the less palatable aspects of his life and administration.” At the same time it is possible to claim that
With his death, the link between the man and the media was further sustained. The display and replaying of the still photographs and films taken on the day of his assassination strengthened the already existent symbiosis between JFK and his images, allowing that day in Dallas to live on in collective memory through its visuals.
This analysis aims to study the new media as a innovative political instrument of communication and propaganda, with a particular attention to the impact and the approach of John F. Kennedy.
JFK and the Media
John F. Kennedy was the first American president who understood the power and the political relevance of television. From his first political campaigns JFK learnt to “campaign by campaigning”  and to “communicate by communicating.” JFK’s public address experiences were equal to “his political development in shaping his public persona,” which was a intricate “mix of attractiveness, relevant message, and voter needs.”
One of the starting-points of this study is Lubin’s work and the volumes of Joseph P. Berry, Mary Ann Watson and Vito N. Silvestri.
Lubin’s book is really important because the author shows how all the images (above all JFK’s pictures and video) represent a way to know and understand a fundamental period of our recent history. Images, journalism and film of that time are a new way of communication, not only in a political meaning. This material shows us the popularity of JFK with all the American people. Lubin is a professor of art and after a deep analysis of John F. Kennedy’s pictures and videos argues that “JFK was significant not only for his political role as President, but because he became an icon of twentieth-century post-war America. He then describes how these photographs resonate with images and ideas in the art world and in contemporary commercial media, including films, television programs, and advertisements.”
“By holding the first live press conference in the nation’s history, John F. Kennedy showed that boldness and amiability trump all suits in an age of television. In his short time in office JFK also showed:
- that all communication, even Presidential communication, must be relational;
- that the substance of one’s remarks is irrelevant if one cannot say it effortlessly;
- that being on line and in real time bring a special energy to politics.”
John F. Kennedy was definitely a smart and intuitive man and through his way to communicate He was able to add a new instrument to the electoral campaigns. This influenced the dynamics of American politics and JFK was the very first politician who really understood the relevance of television.
John F. Kennedy’s overriding campaign theme in 1960 was the need to get America moving again. After the seeming stillness of the Eisenhower years, the promise of a society in motion, however vague, was exhilarating. And television, itself making technological strides, was the perfect medium to chronicle movement. But the currents of change would be stronger and swifter than anyone could have imagined.
During the 60’s, television became the first media, in the United States and in the rest of the world. Radio didn’t have images and videos, while newspapers didn’t have a voice and contain news of the day before. The new media had voice, images and it allowed a new kind of communication.
The Presidential election of 1960 was to be a real barometer of a new era. It represented a shift in American political technique and underscored the forcefulness of television in the formation of public opinion. The medium’s ability to convey the human dimensions of political figures, however, whether reliably or not, was far from a virgin issue in 1960. The factor of television performance was introduced in the elective process eight years earlier.
It is useful to analyze several years in order to better understand the development of the relationship between JFK and the media.
In October 1953, John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy were on Edward R. Murrow Person to Person, a live interview program broadcast. “Just as JFK was about to explain his position on the Taft-Hartley law, a ringing in the background distracted him. He looked over his shoulder, flashed an endearingly sheepish grin and said: «Perhaps somebody could answer my phone». The senator then continued his well-planned answer just where he had left off. It was a fleeting instant of naturalism, engaging but insignificant. Yet, in retrospect, it foreshadowed a contemporary style of both politics and television the American public would soon come to embrace.”
In this period JFK was one of the vice-presidential candidates, but the nominated was Senator Estes Kefauver. During the Democratic convention JFK was remembered for his delivery of the speech nominating Stevenson. John F. Kennedy became the party’s attraction and “television viewers were favourably impressed with the slender and winsome senator from Massachusetts. He was very soon the most sought after speaker in the Democratic party and clearly a strong contender for 1960.”
In 1957 JFK won the Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage and after this prize he was considered as a statesman and an intellectual. In this period, He soon became the best television guest of political entertainment and television viewers started to consider him as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, before a public announcement.
The readers of the TV Guide found the by-line of Senator John F. Kennedy in the magazine’s November 14, 1959, issue. In this article:
A force that has changed the political scene, he gracefully anticipated some of the criticism that would be directed his way in the following year. Television image, he argued, is not simply a counterfeit measure of a candidate’s capacity to govern and lead. Rather, it is a substantive factor. Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence, the presence or lack of these and other qualities make up what is called the candidate’s ‘image, He wrote. “My own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.
On January 2, 1960, JFK officially announced that he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The day after on Meet the Press John F. Kennedy said the American public would
presume that the Presidential candidate is going to have a normal life expectancy”. He felt, therefore, the second name on the ticket was not going to be of critical importance to American voters. JFK said he was not interested in spending the next eight years of his life “breaking ties (in the Senate) and waiting for the president to die.