On this day in 1959, an article written by Massachusetts senator and presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy appears in an issue of TV Guide. In it, Kennedy examined the influence of television, still a relatively new technology, on American political campaigns.
In the article, Kennedy mused that television had the power to bring political campaigns—and scandals—immediately and directly to the public and illuminated the contrast between political personalities. Kennedy shrewdly noted that a “slick or bombastic orator pounding the table and ringing the rafters” fared poorly against a more congenial candidate and “is not as welcome in the family living room” as a candidate with “honesty, vigor, compassion [and] intelligence.” Kennedy strove to convey the latter image. He also compared Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 month-long cross-country railroad trek to promote his League of Nations proposal (an exhausting trip that ended when Wilson suffered a stroke) to then-President Eisenhower’s ability to reach millions of voters in a 15-minute television appearance.
A year after the publication of the article, Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, faced off in the nation’s first-ever televised presidential campaign debates. A master at projecting the quintessential presidential image, Kennedy exhibited a calm demeanor and responded to questions with intelligence and decorum. While Kennedy appeared rested, well-groomed and in control, Nixon appeared flustered and his light beard, or “five-o’clock shadow,” created more of a stir than his responses to the moderator’s questions. As president, Kennedy continued to showcase his skill at handling the press on-camera and carefully cultivated a relationship with journalists by enlisting their direct involvement in balancing candor with secrecy.
Kennedy’s article also addressed the potential perils of marrying mass media to politics. He warned that political campaigns “could be taken over by public relations experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what kind of person to be.” He cautioned Americans to be vigilant about what they watched, and to be aware that, like game shows, political campaigns “can be fixed…It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed.” Without the public’s acquiescence, he said, “no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.”