The First ‘Celebrity’ President

The American Presidential Election debate in 1960 was a different one. In a rare first, American television channels covered the debate live in that year. Although one million Americans had television sets at their homes, thousands of people didn’t have any access to television. They turned on radios to enjoy the debate between then Vice President and Republican candidate Richard Nixon and young Democrat candidate from Massachusetts John Fitzgerald Kennedy. People, who heard the debate in radios, were highly impressed by Nixon’s careful and polite political speech. They thought that Nixon won the debate and would be their next president. However, people, who watched the debate on televisions, discovered a lively and handsome candidate who spoke directly with them. They were convinced that Kennedy was the right person to lead America.


JFK gained an edge over Nixon by holding his own against his much experienced opponent during the live televised debate. His charismatic personality and confident body language were well received by the television audience and it also helped him win the Presidential Election in 1960. His ability to use the television (the brand-new medium to influence the mass at that time) with exceptional skills surprised media persons (too). Later, photographers and cameramen admitted that JFK knew how to steal the show. Long ago, he realised that television viewers would love to see lively people. He was a perfect showman. After getting down from his plane, he used to meet the waiting crowd outside the airport, instead of getting into his Limousine.


A worldwide transition period began in 1960 when JFK entered the White House. In the 1960s, the French colonial rule ended in a number of small African nations, ‘independent’ South Africa left the Commonwealth and Martin Luther King Jr. triggered mass movements against the racism in America. Cassius Clay, an 18-year-old black from Kentucky, was enjoying the limelight after winning gold in light heavyweight boxing event at Rome Olympics. In Chicago, well-known ‘playboy’ Hugh Hefner opened the US’ first playboy club. Also, America witnessed birth control movement during this period, with the use of contraceptive pills gaining popularity among girls. The movement allowed young Americans to enjoy sexual freedom. After being banned for 32 years, Dr D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was released in England. And also in 1960, a group of young boys created the band, ‘Beatles’, in Liverpool. Then, Paul McCartney was 17, George Harrison 16 and John Lennon 19.


In early 1960, Frank Sinatra was creating songs for JFK’s election campaign. Sinatra’s songs, like ‘Swinging Sixties’, touched the new generation of America. As Kennedy’s brother-in-law and actor Peter Lawford was a friend of Sinatra, JFK did not hesitate to use the singer’s popularity to win the Presidential Poll.


Even after becoming the president, JFK showed courage and honesty to acknowledge the demands of changing times. Although he was not entirely convinced with everything, JFK recognised, realised and accepted those demands. For example, he was sceptical about Martin Luther King’s movements, demanding equal civil rights for white and black Americans. But, he was able to understand the fact that no one could stop the transition.


A section of critics opines that JFK was a master tactician. When the election campaign was going on, the police arrested Martin Luther King Jr. for heading a civil rights movement in Atlanta and sent him to prison in Georgia. JFK immediately made a phone call to King’s wife Coretta Scott and his gesture touched the black Americans. Kennedy took the risk despite knowing the fact that he might lose some votes in the conservative south. According to American historians, blacks’ votes in the north ultimately helped JFK win the election, defeating Nixon by a narrow margin. While JFK bagged 34,220,984 (or 49.72%) popular votes, Nixon received 34,108,157 (or 49.55%) votes. It was the lowest victory margin (0.17%) in the history of the American Presidential Election.
Maybe, his political astuteness prompted JFK to dial Coretta. However, some historians say that JFK really believed a country means everyone – an inclusive society. Even his critics admitted that he was way ahead of his time. That’s why JFK backed civil rights movements. Even after facing criticism, he supported the blacks’ demands. Calling on the Congress in June 1963 to pass what would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Kennedy said: “African Americans had about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning USD 10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.” It was the real picture of America at that time and JFK openly admitted it.
Kennedy was keen on stopping the spread of communism. America would, he said, “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty”. Delivering his famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ (‘I am a Berliner’) speech in western part of Berlin on June 26, 1963, JFK said: “There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.” The execution of JFK’s foreign policy did not quite live up to the stirring rhetoric of his inauguration speech. His flip-flops on communism were a case in point.
Kennedy’s overall foreign policy record was a mixed bag of success and failure. It lacked consistency and probably, he lacked the necessary experience to handle the complex situations of the world in early 1960s. JFK, who stood for freedom and democracy, interfered with the internal affairs of Fidel Castro’s Cuba – a sovereign nation. Soon after he became the 35th president of America in 1960, Castro’s government took over all the US-owned oil and sugar companies in Cuba. The US not only sent armed forces to Cuba, but also deployed B-52 bombers to attack Cuban military airbases. However, JFK changed his mind after that. He did not allow more air strikes. As a result, the CIA’s ‘Bay of Pigs’ expedition failed in April 1961 and Castro’s Revolutionary Army forced American soldiers to surrender in just three days. Then, the ‘defeated’ CIA planned another conspiracy. They decided to kill some US citizens on American soil and to blame Cuba for the ‘massacre’. According to insiders, such a move would allow the CIA to start full scale military operations against Cuba. But, Kennedy did not agree once again.
Perhaps, JFK is the only US president who stood against CIA this way. Reports suggest that the conflict led to Kennedy’s assassination. Although the investigation proved that Lee Harvey Oswald was alone and there was no one with him, a section of American people did not believe that. The suspicion was further strengthened after Oswald was murdered during the legal proceedings. As a result, JFK’s assassination still remains mysterious. Just before the bullet hit his head, the president was greeting people from his Limousine. ‘First lady’ Jacqueline, too, was in the car. Before him, Abraham Lincoln was the only president, whose death shocked the Americans.
JFK’s personal life, too, was controversial. Jacqueline was a beautiful lady. But, JFK had a number of girlfriends. His friends admitted that women were his only weakness. Historians supported the view, saying that JFK was a womanizer. It is unfortunate that Bill Clinton was accused of misusing the White House’s ‘Oval Office’. Majority of American people still believes “we cannot compare Marilyn Monroe with Monica Lewinsky”.
Interestingly, Monroe and Kennedy did not hide their relationship. In 1962, JFK organised an event at Madison Square Garden in New York on May 19 to celebrate his birthday (10 days before his birthday). The list of 15,000 guests included eminent political personalities and Hollywood celebrities. Before JFK, Franklin Roosevelt was the last US president who celebrated his birthday like this. Along with Maria Callas and Ella Fitzgerald, Monroe stole the show on that day by performing “Happy Birthday to You Mr. President” song at Madison Square.
In this way, JFK became a ‘cult figure’ even after serving as president for just three years. He left a permanent impression among American people. Kennedy was not only a young and romantic leader, but also a leader with ‘perfect’ attitude. Later, his first presidential speech (after taking oath) found its place in the list of the best quotes. “Ask not, what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” said Kennedy.
Be it success or controversy, his successors failed to match JFK. When Donald Trump made controversial comments during his election campaign in 2016, outgoing President Barrack Obama repeatedly urged people not to forget values of the American society. Obama also requested his countrymen to respect and protect the values, which are foundation of democratic America. JFK replicates those values, which America wanted to become one day.
The world celebrated 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth on May 29, 2017.

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