Profiles in Persuasion: John F. Kennedy

This is the first post in a series this month covering the use of technological innovation in persuasion and leadership.


Perhaps no president is as well-known in popular culture as John F. Kennedy. Though he is remembered, perhaps primarily, because of his untimely death at the hand of an assassin, his rise to the highest office is a fascinating look into the evolution of communication in the 20thcentury.

Kennedy was the son of Joseph Kennedy, a well-to-do member of the political elite. Joe Kennedy served the FDR Administration in various roles; his extensive connections along with successful business ventures laid the groundwork for a political dynasty spearheaded by his son John, the future president.

JFK served the nation in World War II before returning to Massachusetts, seeking election to the House of Representatives. After serving in the House, JFK moved to the upper house and secured election to the United States Senate. He served one full term, winning re-election to a second term. But the second term was interrupted by the 1960 presidential race.

Richard Nixon served as Vice President to Dwight Eisenhower for eight years. In 1960, he was ready to move into the Oval Office. As the Republican nominee for the presidency, Nixon was matched against a relatively young candidate from the Democrats: John F. Kennedy. Throughout the course of the campaign, polls had the two in a dead heat. 

In 1960, about 90% of households in the United States had a television. Though the large units were practically ubiquitous, never before had the two major party candidates debated live on television. Since the Nixon-Kennedy election, multiple television debates, including within party primaries, are the norm and a matter of course. The 1960 election marked an inflection point in the use of technology that is perhaps only paralleled by the internet in recent years.

Both Kennedy and Nixon were adept debaters in their own rights; the key difference, though, was Kennedy’s acumen for television. While Nixon was classically skilled, and a force in traditional debates, television as a medium required a different approach. While Kennedy looked directly into the cameras, and thus the viewers, Nixon would vary his gaze, looking at reporters in the studio and away from the cameras. In person, Nixon’s approach made sense, but over television he came across as shifty and uncomfortable.

And maybe he was. Nixon had suffered an injury weeks before that led to infection, and he was rather ill during the filming of the debate. Moreover, he had an uncommonly prominent five o’clock shadow that his team attempted to hide through makeup, but that only caused Nixon to sweat and appear discomfited. Ironically, Kennedy was also ill; plagued by various ailments his entire life, JFK was medicated to deal with Addison’s Disease. While he appeared tan and relaxed on screen, some speculate that the disease actually gave him the bronze hue. Regardless of the causes, the two men could not have looked more different on screen.

The import of the televised debates for Kennedy was clear: while radio listeners split, or even leaned toward Nixon, those who viewed the debates on television went overwhelmingly for Kennedy. In an election polling within the margin of error, every vote would matter. Prior to the first debate, Nixon led the polls by a single point, 47-46. After the fourth and final debate, Kennedy had pulled ahead by 3 points, 49-46. Kennedy would go on to win the election in November, with the popular vote decided 49.7-49.5; many historians attribute Kennedy’s narrow victory to the debates. 

Of approximately 4 million undecided voters, more than 3 million ultimately voted for Kennedy. What’s more, half of all voters polled nationwide said they were influenced by the debates, and 6% of those polled claimed the debates alone were the deciding factor. 

Reacting to Nixon’s appearance in the first debate, Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard Daley reportedly said, “My God, they’ve embalmed he even died.” Other Chicago institutions were equally stunned. The Chicago Daily News ran a headline reading “Was Nixon Sabotaged by TV Makeup Artists?” It was that bad.

On the other hand, the young JFK was able to project cool confidence on the screen. By knowing the medium well and understanding the implications of a live debate on television, he was able to capture the moment away from Nixon and propel his candidacy forward. It also marked the turning point for presidential elections, with JFK leading the way for every major presidential aspirant since to appear in televised debates. The precedent has been followed since 1960, and many a candidate has soared and sunk because of their debate performance.

In this series, we’ll look at how important technology is for leaders trying to persuade. The next few posts will cover Who Adopts Early and Who Doesn’t, Fear and Uncertainty, and The Value of Technology.

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