In what could well be a case of history repeating itself, this year’s presidential election may end up resembling the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which proved to be one of the closest elections in U.S. history. Just as many Americans responded to JFK’s message of hope for a better future, today many people are looking to both President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry for a similar grassroots message. In fact, Campaign!, a new exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, reinforces the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Kennedy’s speeches during his energetic run for president paint a strikingly similar picture to today’s contest. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles on July 15, 1960, Kennedy affirmed, “Courage—not complacency—is our need today. Leadership—not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.” His message of a “New Frontier” asked voters to re-evaluate the public’s definition of a world leader, a question even today’s candidates seem to be asking.
At Campaign!, visitors can hear his speech for themselves. The exhibit begins with a look at the 1960 convention, complete with the original Teleprompter used by Kennedy during his speech, allowing guests to follow along as he did while hearing the live audio.
Next you’ll hit the trail with Jack and glimpse the inner workings of his campaign through original documents that outline the strategies he used to win the race. Telegrams and memos sent back and forth between Kennedy and those close to him are on display, offering a glimpse at some of the more private moments of 1960 through the candidate’s own words.
Visitors are further acquainted with the grassroots style of Kennedy’s run for the White House thanks to photographs taken by fellow Bostonian Burton Berinsky, who poignantly captured the enthusiasm with which Kennedy delivered his message and the excitement that greeted him across the country.
Not that winning the fight for the presidency against Richard Nixon was an easy battle. In the exhibit’s replica of Kennedy campaign headquarters, visitors can see firsthand the memorabilia distributed by aides and volunteers to a hesitant public that wondered whether a young, less experienced Senator was the right choice for president. Nixon’s speeches and memorabilia reflecting his campaign goals provide a contrast and offer insight into why he lost the election by the slimmest margin of defeat history had seen until George W. Bush’s controversial victory over Al Gore in 2000.
But what sealed Kennedy’s victory
is what today’s campaigns hinge on—television presence. Watch the
candidates battle it out at a set replicating the TV studio where
the first-ever televised presidential debate between Kennedy and
Nixon was aired. The 1960 campaign journey comes to an end as
visitors tune in to hear the final results, with national news
anchors David Brinkley, Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite announcing
that JFK has become the next American President. Visitors then tag
along to that chilly Inauguration Day in 1961, when Kennedy uttered
that immortal call to America: “Ask not what your country can do for
you—ask what you can do for your country.”
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