One could argue that the development of John F. Kennedy’s political career coincided with the rise and development of television as evidenced by the statistics that in 1960, 80 percent of American households owned a television set, while that figure rose to 90 percent by 1962 when most people reported that they turned to television as their prime source for news (Silvestri, 263-264).  Kennedy, often described as “the first television president,” employed the new medium to his full advantage beginning most notably with his four high-profile debates against then-Vice President Richard Nixon over the course of the 1960 presidential campaign.  The debates showcased Kennedy’s speaking abilities and enhanced his credibility, but perhaps of greater significance was the image of health, vigor and enthusiasm Kennedy displayed to the national audience.  JFK’s youthful, tanned face, nicely accented by his carefully-chosen blue suit, contrasted with Nixon, who appeared uncomfortable, sweating on camera and looking rather ill in a grey suit which blended into the background of the television set.  Although those who listened to the debate on the radio could not agree on a clear victor, television audiences gave the advantage in the debates to Kennedy, which demonstrated his skillful utilization of the television medium.

           Clear, straightforward, inspirational speeches were a hallmark of the Kennedy television presidency.  Kennedy and his speechwriters took care to use simple language and parallel structure to best appeal to listeners.  JFK often incorporated humor into the beginning of his addresses and monitored audience response throughout the course of a speech, altering what he had planned to say as needed.  Kennedy’s inaugural address has been widely regarded as one of the most exemplary in American history providing classic quotations such as: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  Aside from his inspirational words, Kennedy took care to accent his preferred image as well, opting to wear neither a hat nor an overcoat in the cold January weather.  Kennedy always paid heed to both substance and style in his televised orations.  Kennedy’s engaging personality coupled with his oratory skills, as displayed on television, allowed him to better push forth his policy objectives in several instances.  As president, Kennedy agreed to hold live press conferences for the first time in stark contrast to his predecessors such as Truman who refused to have his conferences recorded and Eisenhower who had required that his press conferences be taped and edited before they were aired.  Kennedy even watched tapes of his press conferences after they had aired in an effort to hone his skills (Silvestri, 272).

            Kennedy’s first job after he left the Navy was as a journalist, thus he often professed his admiration of and empathy for other writers and broadcasters.  During his abbreviated presidency, JFK delivered 64 live news conferences and 9 radio and television addresses (Silvestri, 272).  The president also granted special interviews to reporters he favored, including the first-ever informal presidential interview in late 1962, “A Conversation with the President,” in which he discussed current events and the institution of the presidency from a rocking chair in the Oval Office.  Kennedy helped develop a forum many subsequent commanders-in-chief have also employed.  Even though it appeared that Kennedy got along better with the press than many of his predecessors, many scholars have said “Kennedy was involved in a love-hate relationship with the media” (Berry, 69).  In several notable instances, JFK sought to contain journalists.  Kennedy successfully convinced editors from The New York Times and The New Republic not to publish stories about the Bay of Pigs before the invasion in an acute instance of his ability to manipulate media sources.  Presidents can wield a great deal of power over media sources by threatening to withhold access and alleging that publication could adversely affect the country’s national security.  Kennedy’s performance as the first television president has served as a model for subsequent American presidents, which many have sought to emulate to varying degrees of success.

While the media has always played an important role in campaign coverage in the United States, the way in which it covers and affects political campaigns has altered significantly since the JFK era.  One must not underestimate John F. Kennedy's ability to utilize the press to his advantage, but should also recognize that significant changes have made media relations increasingly challenging for politicians in recent decades.  Some of these changes include, but are certainly not limited to: the decline in issue coverage; rising mistrust in government and the importance of image; and the increasing media emphasis on political races.

            The media certainly covered the campaign races, termed "game coverage," extensively in the 1960's (see "Step up in '60 Drive Set by Democrats).    However, they seemed to have provided more objective coverage of the issues in the 1960, and most elections before the Watergate era.  Thomas E. Patterson argues that "as late as the 1960's, the news was a forum for the candidates' ideas" in that it presented the candidates' ideas and issues as they had intended to present them (Patterson, 69).  Newspapers would write about the substance of campaign and presidential speeches, as opposed to analyzing their significance in terms of image or game coverage as they so often do today.  They also connected the issues not simply to the individual candidate, but to their party and its campaign platform (see "Democrats Act to Save Jobless" and "GOP called weak on three major issues"). 

            As Patterson and many other scholars point out, campaign coverage after the 1960's began to revolve around game coverage and the horse racing of politics.  "Like Kennedy, today's candidates use the media to get their message across, but the message is refracted through the press's game schema" (Patterson, 71).  There could be many reasons for these changes, a few of which pertain to the Kennedy elections in particular.  First, after Watergate, negative images of candidates and mistrust of the government were evermore present in the media.  Image has always mattered, of course, as evidenced by JFK's ability to utilize the media in his senatorial and presidential campaigns.  In the 1952 Senate race, he bolstered his image in the media with such tactics as what we now know as the "Kennedy Tea Parties," informal gatherings with different community groups to increase his publicity (Berry, 10-11).  Second, party politics have declined since the 1960's such that the media tends to frame the issues that matter to the public instead.  Between RFK's assassination and internal party conflicts, nominations after 1968 would be determined through primary elections as opposed to party leaders (Patterson, 30).  Thus, the media is not only involved more extensively in the coverage of political races, but they are involved much earlier than ever before.

Times have certainly changed since the presidency of John F. Kennedy to that of the modern day president.  Specifically, there exists a stark contrast between the amount of scandal coverage by the media with regard to the president’s personal life.  “The potential embarrassments, such as the state of his health, and his sexual philandering, were kept out of the public eye.”[1]  It was not until long after the assassination of John F. Kennedy that the public was made aware of his severe medical conditions during his presidency.  A thorough examination of JFK’s medical records proves that he suffered from far more ailments, was in far greater pain and was taking many more medications than the public knew at the time or biographers have since described.[2]  Robert Dallek wrote a book called An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, “in which he delivers what will most assuredly become the benchmark JFK biography for this generation.”[3]  Dallek reports that Kennedy had severe chronic back pain that caused him to take a series of strong, and potentially sedating medicines.  Kennedy also used stimulants and drugs to lower his anxiety level and concealed his Addison’s Disease, or failure of the adrenal glands, that forced him to take chronic steroids.[4]  Most of this medical history had already been explored prior to Dallek’s discoveries, however, what was new was the overwhelming detail, the dramatic context, and the “sense that finally here was the full, unmitigated truth.”[5]  A closer look at Dallek’s findings illustrates the scandal concealment by the Kennedy family, his close associates, his doctors, and of course, JFK himself.

Notably, Dallek finally got access to several materials that JFK’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, had hidden after leaving the White House. These were among many materials that were hidden in an effort to keep them from reaching the Kennedy Library for all to see. Dallek reveals that JFK was seeing a Dr. Max Jacobsen roughly once a week, who gave him injections filled with amphetamines. In November 1961, Dr. Eugene Cohen wrote JFK a letter warning him against such injections. Cohen wrote, “You cannot be permitted to receive therapy from irresponsible doctors like M.J. who by forms of stimulating injections offer some temporary help to neurotic or mentally ill individuals…this therapy conditions one’s needs almost like a narcotic, is not for responsible individuals who at any split second may have to decide the fate of the universe.”[6] Additionally, Cohen worried about Dr. Janet Travell, the White House doctor. He believed that the Novocain injections she used on JFK to treat his back pain were dangerous to the point of pushing JFK to use narcotics to relieve the pain. This information has led many to view JFK as a “reckless man who took chances with his health, in his personal life, and with the nation…it is absurd to suggest that his illnesses and amphetamine use had no impact on his presidency.”[7]

It is crucial to put JFK’s story into historical perspective and recognize that the secrecy and concealment of his medical conditions were not uncommon actions taken by both politicians and ordinary patients before 1970.  Discussions about disease were usually kept private between doctor and patient during the years Kennedy was sick. This often forced physicians, family members and staff to conspire to keep the truth a secret. “As would Dallek, historians after 1970 used medical records and other sources to describe how past presidents and their staffs had deceived the public.”[8]  A closer look at past presidents reveals that JFK was not the only one who conspired to keep his medical conditions a secret.

The medical status of a president was considered an unfit subject for the public press until 1881, when President James Garfield was shot at Union Station.  It was then that newspapers published pictures of the president on his hospital bed where he fought for his life for three months.  It is necessary to mention Garfield because Chester Arthur succeeded his presidency and became the first president to lie to the media about his health.[9] He was diagnosed with a kidney disorder and nearly died at one point. When reporters asked about his health, he insisted he was in “tiptop shape.”  Similarly, Grover Cleveland had cancer in his upper jaw, yet he sent out an official to lie about his condition to the press.  Woodrow Wilson suffered two strokes in the 1890s and another series while he was dealing with a national campaign on the passage of the Treaty of Versailles during his presidency. Wilson had his wife report that “he was conducting his affairs as always,” when reporters raised questions about his health.[10]  The lies do not end here. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not reveal that he had suffered polio in the 1920s until he had fully recovered. Dwight Eisenhower suffered a series of heart attacks. His secretary informed the press that “he had eaten something that disagreed with him.”  It was not until it was obvious that he had undergone a massive cardiac arrest that the truth was revealed.[11]

            Several dichotomies exist regarding a president’s medical condition that should be examined. First, presidents’ medical conditions is the one subject concerning a president’s private life in which the public is deeply interested, and yet it is that same subject that presidents feel entitled to conceal. Second, one could view JFK as a hero for enduring and concealing the kind of pain he was experiencing while simultaneously trying to successfully lead a nation.  In short, one could view his concealment as character strength rather than a weakness.  What is unique about JFK and presidents before him is that they “could candidly speak with their physicians about their medical problems without regard to how such information would play in the press.”[12]  Today, immediate revelations of illness are the norm among politicians.  These include New York City may Rudy Giuliani’s experiences with prostate cancer, Vice President Dick Cheney’s clogged coronary arteries, and presidential candidate Bill Bradley’s episodes of a heart arrhythmia, all of which the press covered extensively.[13]

            JFK’s medical condition was not the only thing that was concealed from the public during his reign as president.  During the early 1960s, journalists and informed observers used to discuss in private the president’s casual approach to his marriage vows, and his insatiable sexual appetite, but they nevertheless kept the code of silence that then protected the reputations of politicians.[14]  And so JFK’s extramarital affairs went untold.  Rather, the American people were only allowed to see carefully staged occasions where Kennedy and his wife were seen at their best.  This influence of the media during the height of network television is perhaps why the Kennedys are remembered as the first truly glamorous presidential couple.  The media’s role not only included keeping JFK’s private affairs private, but also upheld his reputation by “putting him forward in the manner that best served his interests.”[15]  This meant that the president could still expect the public at large to show a certain deference towards him.  The media thus embodied him as a president of youthful energy, and his difficulties with his back and subsequent dependence on painkillers were kept secret from the public.

            This rather “cooperative press,” as Gould phrases it, enjoyed reporting on JFK as much as JFK enjoyed manipulating them.  If a reporter wrote disapprovingly about JFK’s policies, Kennedy was willing to put any amount of pressure on certain publishers in order to maintain his reputation among the public.  His raw power over the media and administration allowed him to influence the public, and thus make raw power a “hallmark of modern presidents.”[16]  For example, the Kennedy White House employed a pollster, Lou Harris, who helped his administration in shaping public opinion.  In short, this allowed JFK to enjoy a continuous campaign throughout his term. “In this way, a favorable press context for Kennedy’s public personality was created, and this was sustained throughout his brief administration.”[17] 

            A glance back at the years of John F. Kennedy’s presidency shows several unique privileges that are no longer enjoyed by modern presidents.  As noted earlier, the medical status of any politician is always subject to media exposure and most certainly affects political campaigns.  Had JFK, FDR and others lived under these same provisions, their careers would undoubtedly have taken a different course.  Consider what we now know about President Bill Clinton’s personal life. His extramarital affairs ultimately led to his perjury to the Supreme Court and subsequent impeachment.  Still today, it is hotly debated how necessary exposure of the president’s life truly is.  There are strong arguments on either side, but as Richard Lessner concludes in his article on the president’s personal life, “Character is indivisible. If Bill Clinton has, as the evidence suggests, repeatedly dishonored his marriage vow, why should we believe that he has been faithful to his oath of office?”[18]  This is just one of the questions that plagues modern presidents and may be a direct result of the revelations of past presidents, such as John F. Kennedy.   


 

[2] "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye." By Rick Shenkman: November 18, 2002

[5] "A Kennedy Biographer Assesses the Dallek Disclosures." By Laurence Leamer: November 25, 2002

[6] "A Kennedy Biographer," et al.

[7] "A Kennedy Biographer," et al.

[8] Barron, Lerner, et al.

[10] How Many Presidents, et al.

[11] How Many Presidents, et al.

[12] Barron, Lerner, et al.

[13] Barron, Lerner, et al.

[14] Gould, Lewis L. et al.

[15] Gould, Lewis L. et al.

[16] Gould, Lewis L. et al.

[17] Gould, Lewis L. et al.

[18] Lessner, Richard. “Does Character Matter? The President’s Personal Life Does Too Matter.” The Union Leader: July 30, 1998.