Was JFK that generation's BHO?
November 8, 2008 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Was the reaction to John Kennedy being elected anything like the current world-wide wave of joy and relief to the election of Obama?
posted by LastOfHisKind to Law & Government (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. I was very, very young at the time, and remember more about his funeral and how it interrupted the regular TV programming, but my Mom was a huge Kennedy supporter and clipped and saved tons of newspaper articles from his campaign and the "human interest" stories published after he was elected. Much like the Obama gushing I'm seeing on the Blue, so many news reports at the time expressed hope for a "new" America because of a President who was as handsome as a movie star and had an attractive young socially-connected wife. I remember looking at Mom's Kennedy scrapbook many years ago and thinking that so many of the newspaper articles were more about JFK's "cuteness" (for want of a better term) than about his policitics. One of the newspaper articles in her collection simply features a photo of his bandaged finger and goes on to explain that he'd cut himself while slicing a loaf of bread for his children. (Oh, how homespun! Just like when Barack Obama bussed his own table at the fast food restaurant!) But yes, based on her collection of newspaper articles, the world treated JFK like he was Davy Jones or David Cassidy.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:03 PM on November 8, 2008

I was 10 when he was elected, but I don't remember it being that big a deal when he was elected. Eisenhower, as I remember, had spent most of his time as President playing golf. (Actually, he proposed the interstate hiway system as necessary for national defense, stood behind Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, got us started in the space race and gave a great speech when leaving office about the dangers of the military-industrial complex that we should have paid more attention to.) Americans were still the good guys to most of the rest of the world and the economy was pretty good. So it was more of a "Let's see what the new guy can do" than a collective global gasp of relief.

I don't think we realized what we had until Kennedy was gone.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 2:09 PM on November 8, 2008

I was a teenage Republican, and the night Kennedy won it was the end of the world. My friends and I were devastated by the Republican loss. Except for two quietly smiling friends who, it turned out, were teenage Democrats. I had seen Kennedy bumperstickers all through the rural parts of our county, but I underestimated their potential impact. I thought everybody who liked Ike would like Nixon. (This was near Gettysburg PA, where nearly everybody did like Ike.) I don't know that Kennedy-mania affected me immediately, but I remember that at his inauguration he expressed American ideals in a way that inspired me and I became a convert.

It was a big deal also because JFK was the first Catholic president. That was a scary hurdle for some people.
posted by sevenstars at 2:37 PM on November 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

As I remember it, the Kennedy election was celebrated more for the defeat of Nixon and the commie-under-every-bed crowd than Kennedy's win. It seemed that Kennedy would support civil right and poverty stuff more than Ike did (yeah) and do more for peace (not so much).

NOBODY thought about assassination (except, of course, the assassins).

The mood change and firstiness (first Catholic/first AA) are about the same.
posted by hexatron at 2:48 PM on November 8, 2008

I asked my dad about this after watching some of the news coverage of the partying in the street. He said it was "similar hero worship."
(Note: He really hates Obama and all democrats in general.)
posted by sperose at 2:50 PM on November 8, 2008

Wasn't there, but my sense is definitely, yes. Here is an account by someone who remembers:
we were too liberal to be happy with President Eisenhower and, our other choice, Adlai Stevenson, was too cerebral for us. Of course, my parents, being FDR Democrats, loved Stevenson but we needed someone in between.

In 1960, that man came along and he was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He had the popular appeal of Eisenhower and was also very intelligent, being a Harvard-educated United States Senator from Massachusetts. He was young and good looking and smart and had a terrific sense of humor. He was our man!

...We didn't think Senator Kennedy stood much of a chance and that only made us work harder.

...My friend, Mary Hewes Schmitt, and I distributed flyers and pamphlets and hoped for the best. Mary had five children and I had four but we did what campaigning we could on behalf of our candidate. It took some gumption to wear a giant Kennedy button on your blouse when you went to Main Street. People stared and remarked that we were on the wrong side, but we ignored their taunts and went on asking people to change their minds and vote for Kennedy.

Election day 1960 came and we were up all night waiting to hear the final results. In the very early hours of the morning Richard Nixon conceded the election and JFK was the president-elect.

Mary and Fred and Roy and I were ecstatic. We couldn't believe it. Kennedy had actually won the election. The New Frontier was the direction our country was going to take....
A professor at Wabash College says:
"I thought back to the 1960 election and how much John Kennedy’s victory meant for me as a child growing up in an almost exclusively Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Philadelphia," Butler said. "Most Wabash students might be surprised to hear this, but in the 1960s, Catholics were, to an extent, on the margins of society. Kennedy’s success, with all his enormous gifts, meant that we, too, had arrived. We were really a full part of America. I can imagine that many African-Americans will experience the same kind of joy this year."

The election drew a record number of voters: Newsreel. (Nixon's concession-speech crowd makes McCain's look tame).

Another personal recollection:
When Kennedy was elected, it was a joyful moment in my home as my parents celebrated the victory as theirs. They had faith that a new era of inclusion was being ushered in, and the sadness of seeing those hopes so tragically truncated haunts me to this day.

Kennedy accepts vote count
and makes victory speech - reporters give him a standing ovation, which announcer calls very unusual.
posted by Miko at 3:12 PM on November 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've been watching the first season of Mad Men, and weirdly ended up watching the 12th episode ("Nixon vs. Kennedy") on the night of the election. While it's obviously a fictional account, it presented an interesting contrast to the fireworks that were exploding in my neighborhood around me all night long. I'd recommend that episode, as it seemed timely, apt, and interesting.

But I don't really want to say more because I don't feel like spoiling anything. :)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:48 PM on November 8, 2008

Here in an overwhelmingly Repulican old money county, it was very much the same, and as I was watching the election returns come in , I was reminded of being 14 years old, a freshman in high school, and staying up almost all night watching the election of John Kennedy as our first Irish Catholic president. My parents were Catholic, my father Irish. He had gone into the city to see Al Smith speak when he was a very young man, and still had memories of the bigotry, including local chapters of the KKK here in NJ, that greeted the first Catholic candidate. The Irish were like serfs here in my granparents' generation, working on the estates of turn of the century millionaires. They were regarded by many as badly as Black people, and other immigrant groups who were seen as "less than" the WASP upper class.

My parents were life-long New Deal Democrats and liberals, and could not stand Nixon. My best friend and I drew unflattering cartoons of him, and we both dragged ourselves into the school the day after the election to celebrate and to mock all our Republican classmates who had been sure Nixon would win. We were ecstatic! It meant a great deal to us as young people, as Irish Catholics, and as kids who would become the protesters of the late 60s in a few years when the dream was shattered over and over by gunshots taking down our heroes.

I havern't really gotten emotionally involved in an election in years, although I always vote and its always been for the Democrat on the national level. But this year, seeing Obama and his beautiful family and remembering the civil rights struggles that have gone on so long, I felt like that hopeful 14 year old girl again, seeing the underdog win, Bush finally on his way out, and joy in the streets. It was an incredibly moving moment. We have a Black president ! Wow!! I'm old enough to be a grandma but for a few minutes was a wonder-struck kid again, seeing all good things possible.

I hope Obama can really do something about the awful mess he has been left to cope with, and that he will be safe and well.

Hexatron's Wife
posted by hexatron at 4:45 PM on November 8, 2008 [7 favorites]

The answer is yes. The previous posters have said it better than I could have done.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:42 PM on November 8, 2008

Anecdotally, I've found two groups of people answer this question differently:

White Americans say it compares to when Kennedy was elected.

Black Americans say it compares to nothing else.
posted by girlmightlive at 6:00 PM on November 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

No. I was there, and yes, of course there was a sense of excitement, passing of the torch to a new generation, etc., but anyone who thinks it was remotely like this is on crack or has succumbed to rose-colored amnesia.
posted by languagehat at 6:16 PM on November 8, 2008

Hail Mary Full of Grace,
The Masons are in Second Place.

I was still in elementary school at the time of Kennedy's election but I remember that little ditty coming up. I didn't know much about world opinion at the time, just pretty much my parents' opinion. We had an "election" in school, and I remember the teacher saying, it was a pretty good predictor of what the town vote would actually be, because kids "voted" like their parents.

Nixon won the school election, and also the town election. And this was in Massachusetts!

I remember the Catholicism thing being very big on both sides. My friend's Catholic grandmother had a picture up in the kitchen, and there was a lot of praying. And a lot of rejoicing on election day.

In my Protestant family, I remember grousing about how Kennedy's rich father had "paid" for the election, and some snide remarks about Jackie.

My impression was been that Kennedy was a lot smarter about the campaign and the election process.

The marginalization of Catholics and Irish in particular, in Massachusetts was no joke and very real. The first (and only so far) Catholic President was a very big deal.

Boy, I remember that tv debate. Was it the first one? Nixon didn't want to put on make-up because that was sissy stuff, and he looked like a bum with heavy five o'clock shadow and a shifty look. Kennedy looked like a prince. I have no memory of what they talked about, but the visual remains with me.

There were some televised press conferences and even at my tender age, I was impressed with Kennedy's quick wit and humor. He was very charming, and people were fascinated by Jackie and the children.

I was recounting the Catholicism issue to a young (20's) friend of mine the other night, and he looked at me in astonishment. I said, "Forty years from now perhaps you will be talking to a young person who will not be able to comprehend that race was ever an issue."
posted by Yimji at 6:53 PM on November 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

The feeling was different...
posted by HuronBob at 7:18 PM on November 8, 2008

I would actually say no. Rather, I would say that the reaction of the people of this country (and our allies) has been far, far more receptive for Obama than it was for Kennedy. Recall that the Kennedy/Nixon campaign was one of the closest in history. There was a large anti-Catholic sentiment as well--many people seriously thought Kennedy would take his orders from the Pope!

I would say that Jack was extremely popular with the (non-voting) teenagers of the time--perhaps in that sense there is some similarity. But the world did not breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kennedy took the oath, not anything near as much as this time around.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:24 PM on November 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

>the world did not breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kennedy took the oath

There is a big difference. There was no popular sense in 1960 that Ike had taken us down the road to perdition.
posted by yclipse at 8:48 PM on November 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Well, exactly. So it seems rather historically naive to suggest that they both inspire the same sentiment.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:01 AM on November 9, 2008

They were both late middle aged men with young kids, which made them seem younger.
posted by A189Nut at 6:21 AM on November 9, 2008

Perhaps the problem is that though we repeat it often, it is patently untrue that "history repeats itself". History is a one-way street. We can compare the victory of the first catholic president to the victory of the first black president, but to think that the blacks of the 00's are the catholics of the 60s is wrong; then who were the blacks of the 60s? The whole reason the first black president is so cathartic is because racism was so rampant and outspoken as recently as the 60s that there are many people still alive who grew up afraid for their lives and called n-----r at school who just helped elect a black man to the oval office. That's a whole different level of triumph than Kennedy, and that's why there were multiple faces covered in tears on Tuesday night.

Plenty of people who elected Obama were there when Kennedy was elected, though plenty of them had trouble voting at the time, for instance... it was still a very conservative time in history, and though progress was being made, I don't think it's fair to equate the two times, even if the election was a burst forward. Perhaps they are of the same kind but not the same quality, or something.

Although, of course, there's another problem: Emerson liked to say that history is properly speaking biography, and younger people who don't really viscerally feel like the world's that racist anymore, may not have been feeling the intense sense of overcoming it as much - their celebration may have been more focusing on this being the first cool, younger, our-guy guy. That could have been much like the Kennedy feeling, which is to say, perhaps it depends who you ask and what sort of meaning they ascribe to the election.
posted by mdn at 10:43 AM on November 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

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