While television was still in its infancy in the 1950's, by 1960 it was becoming a powerful social force in American society. President Kennedy was the first president to understand and use the potential of television.
The Presidential debates of 1960 were the first to be televised nationally. Those who listened on the radio generally felt Vice President Richard Nixon was the winner. But those who watched on television believed John Kennedy to be the victor.
Building on that success after a narrow election victory of 2/10ths of one percent, President Kennedy was the first to hold televised press conferences. With an uncanny ability to speak off-the-cuff and project a down-to-earth style, the Presidential press conferences (a total of sixty-four during 3 years in office) also showcased a sense of humor Americans were unaccustomed to seeing in their chief executive.
President Kennedy was also a master at the use of still photography. He invited photographers into aspects of the First Family that had previously been kept out of the public eye. Images of the President and his family inundated the homes of Americans and turned the First Family into superstars. Americans saw a President who sailed, played touch football, and invited his young children to play in the Oval Office. Though his projected vitality was in part a myth (the President suffered from chronic back pain and Addison's Disease), these pictures shaped a powerful and appealing public image.
President Kennedy's media savvy allowed him to take full advantage of what turned out to be a unique moment. His administration marked a dramatic shift in campaign styles:
- He was the last presidential candidate elected using traditional cross-country whistle stops.
- He was the first to usher in the modern campaign where candidates rely primarily on mass media to influence opinion and attract voters.