JFK and the Public View


May 1960, JFK reading about his victory in the West Virginia primary

The son of an affluent, politically connected powerhouse, the epitome of a courageous war hero, and the handsome face of a changing nation paying more attention than ever to the media, John F. Kennedy in many ways seemed destined for a life in the spotlight. After navigating terms in both the House and the Senate, the young and ambitious “Jack” set his sights on the presidential election of 1960. His father Joe Kennedy initially played a large role in boosting his son’s visibility. In fact, he was even accused of buying votes, but the young JFK was able to use his own charm and cleverness to make the scandal seem far less damaging than it could have been. With looks, brains, and money on his side, Kennedy began his rise to becoming an object of near-obsession for the media.

Despite his youth and Catholic beliefs, both of which made Democratic party leaders skeptical about his strength as a true “national contender,” JFK also enjoyed the great benefits of a sharp mind, a photogenic face, and an extremely dedicated and well-organized political machine. JFK first proved his superstar potential during the Wisconsin primary against Hubert Humphrey, during which Kennedy drew large crowds and was always ready for the camera. These two abilities were both clear indicators of the strong personality that played a large role in his resulting victory.

The next test was the West Virginia primary, where Kennedy’s most crucial success was in using a TV broadcast to tackle the issue of his Catholicism by swearing on the Bible that his loyalty to the Constitution would always come first. Further strengthened by the contrasting embarrassment of Humphrey’s attempt to utilize TV, Kennedy’s savviness once again led to victory.

After JFK secured the nomination, despite Richard Nixon’s formidable experience-based campaign, Kennedy was able to win the White House due largely to his aptness in handling the media spotlight. Famously, in the first presidential debates ever to be televised, Nixon appeared disconnected and agitated while Kennedy remained constantly aware of the cameras and came across as being calm, focused, and in control. This victory demonstrated not only the enormous shift in American attention to television but also JFK’s ability to transform personal ambitions into public perceptions. In this new culture of politics and of living, the citizens had become consumers, and the Kennedy brand seemed to be a best-seller.

JFK in 1958 is depicted here by TIME as one of the “Democratic Hopefuls.” His young and handsome appearance may be an inevitable aspect of any representation, but it is quite deliberate and meaningful to place him front and center as well. Just as this cover implies, for a large number of viewers from the general public, JFK was not only the first person the reader’s eye landed on but also the one that it wanted to linger on the longest. His popular appeal ended up being a great asset throughout the campaign and in later years as well.

TIME’s choice to include the entire Kennedy family on this July 1960 cover is significant mainly due to its clear recognition that JFK’s large popular appeal was not merely the result of an individual effort. The glamorous Jackie, sitting right behind him with her pearls and perfectly coiffed hair, was quite a powerhouse in her own right. Combined with the powerful parents and nostalgic photographs displayed in the background, the overall cover reflects a cohesive family unit ready to provide the young candidate with all the support he needed.




Throughout his time in the Oval Office, Kennedy undoubtedly continued to employ the media as a channel for conveying not only words but also ideals and images to the public. When he spoke, he not only stated political facts or diplomatic goals, but also consciously shaped the version of himself that Americans and people all around the world would think of when they saw his charming smile or heard his distinctive Boston accent. All levels of his administration were permeated by an eternal awareness of and attention to how the media could make or break the man. In the words of Dan Fenn, a former member of the White House staff, Kennedy and his aides were always wary of ideas about which anyone could say, “That’s not presidential. We don’t do that here.” Kennedy and his staff frequently sampled the reactions of the public so that they could tailor future endeavors to be as popular as possible.

Television, one of the strongest warriors in the battle for the Presidency, continued to prove itself vastly useful to JFK long after he was already in office. The first President ever to conduct live, unedited press conferences, he attracted an audience of 65 million with his first post-inauguration broadcast. One of many public opinion polls taken in 1961 indicated that 90% of the responders had watched at least one of the President’s first three press conferences. When TIME magazine named him Man of the Year in 1962, the accompanying article perfectly summed up the correlation between JFK’s image and his popularity: “Kennedy has always had a way with the people—a presence that fits many moods, a style that swings with grace from high formality to almost prankish casualness, a quick charm, the patience to listen, a sure social touch, an interest in knowledge and a greed for facts, a zest for play matched by a passion for work…To translate popularity into support is the job of the politician—and the job to which Kennedy has come increasingly to devote his time and energy.”

In his speeches, JFK reflected his vision of a “New Frontier” by advocating hope, change, and above all a firm belief in the power of what man could achieve. When venturing out of conference rooms and into both cities across America and nations around the world, the President (and his First Lady) attracted large, boisterous crowds that never failed to give the media iconic images perpetuating the notion that to be a Kennedy was to be a superstar.

The President may have seemed to be talking straight to the people when he looked into the television cameras surrounding him, but despite that directness, his persona was in no way complete or unedited. This disconnect clearly manifested itself in the way that, despite the severe pain Kennedy experienced, he was extremely careful never to let that pain show when there were newsmen around to pick up on it. Addison’s Disease and serious back problems plagued him for many years, but virtually no one outside the Kennedy family had any idea just how terrible that pain was. A true politician, no matter how far downhill his internal well-being slipped, JFK remained committed to keeping up the strong, charismatic image that his supporters had come to love so much.


December 19, 1960 – JFK is depicted by LIFE again as a family man, shown in an idyllic setting that includes a beautiful wife and a young son full of promise. Even being his inauguration, in many ways he was already viewed as the very epitome of the American dream.





Even to those who were not alive anywhere near the 1960’s, it seems almost impossible to talk about JFK without the inclusion of his wife Jackie – of her grace, her style, her iconicity, and her captivation of an entire world full of viewers. Instead of passively allowing herself to be seen as one half of a whole, she decisively carved out her own place in the public eye, and in doing so, established not only that she was a crucial part of the Kennedy family, but also that the term First Lady was much more than a simple title.

Ever since being dubbed “debutante of the year” in 1947 by gossip columnist Igor Cassini, Jackie handled attention with great poise and confidence. In between that and her 1953 marriage to Kennedy, she actually worked for The Washington Times-Herald, an interesting position that points both to her inquisitive, bright nature and to the ever-expanding presence of media across America.

In many ways Jackie was just as big an asset to her husband’s career as he was. Though her pregnancy with John, Jr. limited personal appearances during the 1960 campaign, she was still so determined to be involved that she wrote a newspaper column called “Campaign Wife,” answered letters, held interviews, and taped television commercials. After becoming the First Lady, however, even as she willingly continued to allow the press access to her, she insisted on personally controlling and restricting what the media saw of her children and family life. One of Jackie’s most significant and symbolic choices was her assumption of responsibility for restoring the White House, literally remaking the way that the public viewed the office of the Presidency, but doing so on her own terms and with a strong awareness of the media’s role in the entire project. Broadcasting the whole process greatly contributed to the continual popularity of her husband by detracting from political issues even in the middle of the Cold War. In addition to this domestic remodeling, she also molded the role of the First Lady in international affairs by traveling both with and without her husband, at times also having the chance to impress the public by speaking other languages and showcasing her knowledge of a broad range of cultural and historical subjects. The very model of a fashionable modern woman, Jackie easily morphed into an icon and a target of vast attention from the press.


September 1, 1961 – Jackie is shown here to be quite capable of holding her own on the cover of a magazine and also of making her own decisions and policies within the realms that she could control. Her remaking of the White House was a hugely symbolic indicator of her star power, elegance, taste, constant awareness of appearances, and ability to be individual.





Whereas the concept of “Camelot” may instinctively seem to have been imposed and perpetuated by the public, the idealistic term was actually first used by Jackie. Shortly following her husband’s assassination, the new widow immediately took charge of controlling the way the public would forever remember the Kennedy legacy. First she very precisely planned JFK’s funeral in a way meant to reflect a majestic dignity and to be modeled on the funeral services of Abraham Lincoln himself, a clear appeal to the liberty and honesty that people so vividly continued to associate with him decades after his death. Soon after the funeral was over, Jackie then conducted a vastly significant interview with Theodore White. On the same day the resulting article, published by LIFE magazine in December 6, 1953, brought to light Jackie’s allusion to Camelot, The London Herald’s subtitle was coincidentally “America Mourns Camelot Dream.” These words soon became some of the very first that shaped the post-humous image of the deceased president.

As recently as July 2, 2007, TIME magazine was still examining what the virtues of JFK could tell the modern world.

In her famous Theodore White interview, Jackie referred to her husband’s presidency as “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot,” quoting the musical Camelot and then supplementing it with her own opinion: “There’ll be great Presidents again – and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me – but they’ll never be another Camelot again” (Coleman). Through Jackie’s decisive efforts to link her husband’s memory to a mythical, far away era of courage, strength, wonder, and even magic, Camelot was reborn in the shape of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Despite its over-simplifications, it still became an extremely strong influence in the years following his death and remains pervasive in today’s culture as well. Theodore White himself best summed it up when acknowledging, “ I was her instrument in labeling the myth” (Sidney).

Jackie knew exactly what she was doing when she drew this monumental comparison. In casting her husband as the brave, chivalrous Arthur, she quite literally gave him a place in the nation’s hearts that was fit for a king. The public, in turn, felt such warmth for the recently widowed First Lady that most agreed as journalists began to pick up on this notion that his memory should indeed be preserved with great splendor and respect. Even today, though the idealism of Camelot may seem an exaggeration of the truth, Jackie’s words and the resulting wave of media assent to them continue to color the public’s vision of Kennedy.

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On the issue of Civil Rights, attempting to assess JFK’s actual involvement, dedication, and perception becomes complicated by a number of factors. Images such as this one perpetuate the idea that he was a champion of Civil Rights, comparable even to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the mind of the artist. However, the historical record and the subjective memory collide here. What did Kennedy really do for African-Americans?

The first part of this subject to be tackled is the difference between what he promised and what he actually brought to fruition. Throughout his presidential campaign, Kennedy had made broad, hopeful appeals to equality and basic human rights. During this time, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in Georgia, it was he who called King’s wife to express sympathy and his brother Bobby who actually managed to secure his release. In light of these events, and largely due to King’s resulting endorsement of the Kennedy brothers, JFK won over 70% of the African-American vote because this community truly believed that he would bring about change for them. However, Kennedy’s Democratic base lay largely in the white-dominated Deep South, so much of his support for Civil Rights was indicated rather quietly and discreetly so as not to make too much of a stir outside the black community. Despite his trepidations, JFK still showed some support by using the National Guard to reinforce integration at Ole Miss, federalizing the Alabama National Guard to do the same at the University of Alabama, and appointing significantly more African-Americans to government positions than was the norm at that time.

Kennedy had by this point pledged to end the segregation of public facilities with the stroke of a pen. African-American supporters waited in vain for this promise to be fulfilled and then started a massive campaign to send him pens, urging him to follow through and showing just how easy it would be to change their lives with his executive powers. Finally, Kennedy did sign the executive order, but the fact that it was done quietly over Thanksgiving weekend (in 1962) indicated that he didn’t want it to get it to those supporters who would disagree with Civil Rights causes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was initially called for by Kennedy himself, and he lived to see it pass the House of Representatives. Once Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, the act gained even more momentum largely because LBJ and others began touting it as a living monument to his memory. Johnson was able to use the public’s reverence for their recently deceased leader together with his southern political connections and sympathies in order to push the bill into its final stages of approval. The final Act accomplished many milestones for Civil Rights, and even though Kennedy never lived to see its effects in full, nevertheless his memory will always be associated with its legacy.

1960 campaign brochure paints Kennedy as being ready to act for Civil Rights; quotes his speech from an NAACP rally

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