Arthur I. Cyr: Camelot and contemporary politics
Yet one more book on John F. Kennedy has appeared, this time focusing on the 1960 presidential campaign. “The Road to Camelot” by veteran reporters Curtis Wilkie and Thomas Oliphant is worth attention. The volume reflects traditional journalism, with readable prose, serious research and analysis relevant today.
That alone is refreshing, as we are bombarded by contemporary nonstop media, which sometimes mingle fiction and fact. Traditional news reporters treated confirmed facts as their holy grail. The analogy is not strained. Crafting a fine, reliable column — or book — generated respect as well as knowledge among Americans. Too often today, corporate media sacrifice professionalism for profits, serious analysis for sensationalism.
Yet, politics at some level has always involved manipulation of the existing media, the creation of an image which might or might not comport with reality. The 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign gave maximum attention to creating a not-always accurate “image” of the candidate. JFK was competing for the nomination with far more established — and respected — party leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson was enormously powerful in Washington, feared as well as admired for long-term dominance in the legislative branch. Senator Hubert Humphrey likewise had a well-deserved reputation for policy effectiveness in civil rights, foreign aid and other fields. As for Kennedy, he was widely regarded as not very effective, in part because directly seeking the presidency was a constant priority.
“The Road to Camelot” is serious work, but also reinforces a distinctively positive, selective picture of Kennedy. The title gives this away. The Kennedy administration was given this label posthumously, by widowed Jacqueline Kennedy in an early interview with highly sympathetic journalist Theodore H. White.
Kennedy’s presidential ascent was orchestrated significantly by his father Joseph P. Kennedy, enormously successful in business, a disastrous failure as ambassador to Great Britain, controversial throughout. JFK went the hard public route of presidential primaries. The campaign emphasized that dimension, and so does this book.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Joe Kennedy relentlessly courted and won over traditional politicians including big-city bosses, who were still powerful — though their days were numbered. The book tends to glide over this rough dimension, at times dismissing his efforts.
Joe Kennedy recognized clearly the enormous influence of modern media. Early on, he made a fortune in the movie industry. “We’re going to sell Jack like soap flakes,” he declared regarding his son’s political career. John C. Dowd was an impressive advertising entrepreneur, a successful Irishman in a largely Anglo-dominated business (one accurate theme in TV’s simplistic “Mad Men”). Dowd was subsumed by Joe Kennedy
During the intense fall U.S. presidential contest, Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon made history, and changed history, by debating face to face on nationwide TV — and also radio. The first faceoff between the two presidential nominees, in September in a Chicago CBS studio, eventually redefined American presidential politics in terms of how party nominees compete.
A little-known precedent to these debates was a radio debate in 1952 between powerful Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and his widely dismissed challenger, young Congressman Kennedy. Nationwide, Republicans led by Dwight Eisenhower swept to landslide victory. One of the few Democratic wins was Kennedy’s upset defeat of Lodge.
John Kennedy was a pivotal, transitional figure in American politics. Old-fashioned machine politics was vital to securing the nomination, but so were primary victories. The Kennedy organization fully understood the media’s power. Oliphant and Wilkie describe, and also represent, the phenomenon.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact at email@example.com.