Kennedy vs. Nixon, 1960

Image via Presidential Archive Kennedy Nixon Debates

Image via Presidential Archive Kennedy Nixon Debates

Joan and Greg were born just over three months apart in 1950, and Harry Truman was in the White House, about to deal with the invasion of South Korea. Of course, we don’t remember much (well, actually, anything) about President Truman or that war. Greg has some interesting items brought home from Korea and a few photographs of his father at Inchon. Greg’s father spoke even less about Korea than he did about World War II.

Dwight Eisenhower was president for much of our early childhood, and Greg remembers a red handkerchief his grandfather Jesse had that was emblazoned with the slogan “I like Ike.” Grandpa Jesse was, at least for that time, a rare West Virginia Republican in a heavily Democratic state. It was odd, because he was a member of the United Mine Workers, a union man. I guess he truly did “like Ike.”

Most of the time, neither of us thought much about Presidents, parties, or politics. We doubt any other kids our age did much thinking about them either. The election of 1960 was probably the one exception. Joan recalls the excitement the Kennedy/Nixon campaign and debates generated at her grade school in the fall of 1960. Kids argued on behalf of their chosen (or should we say their parents’ chosen) candidate among themselves. Some kids in her Lutheran Sunday School voiced the fear that the Pope would actually run the country if Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, were elected.

Joan and her best friend, Judy, disagreed on which man would make the better president. They were in gym class together, practicing somersaults and backward rolls on the mats, when they had a (slightly) heated discussion. Joan argued for Nixon, and Judy for Kennedy. In retrospect Joan admits that her choice was based on the fact that her parents were staunch Republicans who always backed the Republican contender. She admits her choice was in no way researched or informed. Judy’s parents were voting for Kennedy, but it is quite possible that Judy’s decision was, unlike Joan’s, actually an informed one because Judy was a really smart kid! The election, by the way, in no way impacted their friendship. Joan doesn’t remember ever discussing it again once the election was settled.

The debates held on television seemed like a big deal at the time. We didn’t realize it then, but these were the first ever televised presidential debates. Joan remembers the Nixon/Kennedy debates being on the family’s black and white television, preempting shows like Andy Griffith, but she herself didn’t have much interest in watching them. After the first debate she heard from kids at school about how “bad” Nixon looked compared to Kennedy, but she doesn’t remember noticing  it herself when she watched a little of that first debate.

Little did we know that these debates would fundamentally alter political campaigns and the politics of power in America. For an insightful analysis of the debates see: “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World” at http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021078,00.html

A lot would change for us personally in the next eight years. In 1968, both of us were moving away from the political views of our parents and establishing political opinions of our own. Like many of our generation we were becoming caught up in the ideological and cultural changes sweeping the country. Joan would become more liberal and Greg would come into increasing conflict with his extremely conservative father. And Nixon, the loser in the 1960 campaign, would re-emerge on the political scene. The stage was set for the unsettling years to come.

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