Despite the numbing volume of coverage devoted to the Kennedy assassination this month, the programming has touched only tangentially on what might be the 35th president’s most enduring legacy: defining the budding relationship between politics and the nascent medium of television.
In presidential terms, much of John Kennedy’s contribution was indecisive, or at best unfinished. Yes, he stared down the Soviets, but it fell to Lyndon Johnson to enact the Great Society programs, and debate lingers over whether the young president would have escalated the war in Vietnam had he survived.
As one historian says in “JFK,” a four-hour PBS documentary, “We will never know whether he would have been a great president. … We didn’t have that chance.”
What Kennedy set in motion regarding television, however, has since snowballed. Even the differences between the age in which he served and the modern landscape are illuminating.
For starters, it’s easy to forget how quickly TV went from novelty to living room fixture. When the 1950s began, only 9% of U.S. homes had a TV set, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising. By the time Kennedy was sworn in, that percentage had increased nearly tenfold.
Handsome and telegenic, Kennedy was perceived as having won the first-ever televised presidential debates by those who watched them, but not by people who listened on radio. In “JFK,” presidential biographer Robert Dallek notes that Richard Nixon’s uncomfortable appearance was said to resemble a “sinister chipmunk.”
Yet Kennedy’s mastery of TV and intuitive grasp of imagery went well beyond that, planting the seeds for the showbiz values that have come to permeate politics in the 50 years since his death.
As several of the current spate of specials note, Kennedy held the first televised news conferences, during which he playfully jousted with the press — and disarmed more pointed questions by delivering witty one-liners.
The president also embraced using his family — model-pretty wife Jackie and those adorable young children — as photogenic props. The first family graced magazine covers, and was shown engaging with Edward R. Murrow on “Person to Person” in what today would be the domain of a latenight chatshow.
From there, it’s not much of a leap to a press that devotes a depressing amount of time to Hillary Clinton’s shifting hairstyles or Michelle Obama’s biceps.
The most obvious point of departure between today and yesterday was a press corps that seemed to have a gentlemen’s agreement (and it was mostly men, after all) with the president and among themselves, and looked the other way regarding his brazen womanizing. Today, every aspect of a candidate’s personal life is deemed fair game.
Yet if Kennedy’s dalliances couldn’t have escaped the age of cable news and Drudge, his personal qualities and style still would have been extremely attractive. This was a president, after all, who died when Johnny Carson was little more than a year into his tenure on “The Tonight Show,” and long before chatting with comedians and exhibiting one’s lighter side was every bit as much a part of a candidate’s necessary skill-set as mastering policy.
The irony is, it was JFK’s appointee to head the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, who pronounced TV “a vast wasteland,” when his boss knew how to till that field better than all but a few politicians who have followed.
Nor should one forget the Kennedy mythmaking included a movie depicting his war heroism, “PT 109,” released while he was in office. It’s hard to imagine the hysteria such a de facto campaign video would produce now, given the eruption triggered by NBC and CNN’s since-scuttled projects devoted to a still-undeclared Hillary Clinton.
This isn’t to suggest Kennedy was the first or last politician with a facility for spinning the press, but rather that his tenure coincided with the growing influence of TV — a visual medium of unique and extraordinary power in shaping public perceptions.
Tellingly, TV still can’t get enough of JFK. Yet while the medium clearly helped get him elected, he more than returned the favor by putting the young medium on the road to becoming the dominant force in our political culture.