Image is Everything Mr. President

The 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon set a new precedent on how politicians would approach campaigning in the modern era. Previously,  politicians enjoyed broad based constituents and long existing demographics, in the 1960s, counterculture movements, party disunity, and new technology forced those running for national office to rethink their campaign strategies. But what caused such a critical shift in political strategy? Many scholars attribute age, religion, and new technology to be the catalysts that brought about modern campaign. Gary Donaldson’s book The First Modern Campaign: Kennedy, Nixon, & the Election of 1960, delves into these issues and their effect on politics. Generally, Donaldson’s correlations and analysis are well founded and logical. Donaldson develops a complex narrative on how the election of 1960 reshaped presidential campaigning; however, he also misinterprets how the effect of candidates’ “personal image,” was limited to this and subsequent elections.

Personal image in the sense that the book takes it, is the persona that the candidate hopes to make the public trust and support. The idea that a candidate should take active steps to cultivate and ensure that a positive persona is formed within their constituents was not an idea new to the 1960 campaigns. This idea can been seen throughout FDR’s presidency for example. Although plagued with the degenerative effects of polio, Roosevelt worked hard to maintain a strong physical image when presenting himself to the American people. Press conferences would not show FDR’s struggle with being wheelchair bound, nor would newspapers post pictures of him with leg braces on. It was important for the president’s personal image that he be shown as someone with the physical fortitude to withstand the Germans in the West, and the Japanese in the East.

One might also consider the image candidate’s created for party alliances. No elections shows this in such prevalence as the election of 1840. This election was the first national victory for the Whig party, and the campaign in particular was unique in that, “popular and emotional appeal was organized on an unprecedented scale.” The Whig’s candidate William Henry Harrison portrayed himself as a “Hard Cider and Log Cabin candidate,” in an effort to mark himself in line with the sympathies of the common man.


“The cover of the Hard Cider and Log Cabin Almanac of 1841 depicts presidential candidate William Henry Harrison and his running mate John Tyler.” Bettmann Images



Although the powdered nose persona of the Kennedy campaign, and the incorporation of new media did have an effect on the election process since 1960, to mark the idea of personal image as one limited to this era would be a misrepresentation of the American presidency. Personal image has been a concern of candidates since the inception of the American system of government. The only factor that introduced such tremendous change into the political field in 1960 was the mode of delivery to which it reached the American people.



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