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How Kennedy paved the way for campaigns like Trump's

November 14, 2016

What do Donald Trump and John F. Kennedy have in common? Not much, except for parallels in their strategic media campaigns. A Berlin exhibition reveals how both candidates used new media and appearance to reach people.

Trump caricature by Christoph Niemann
A caricature from 2015 by German illustrator Christoph NiemannImage: Christoph Niemann

When President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin in 1963, the hundreds and thousands of West Berliners who greeted him were living in fear and uncertainty in the divided capital. The Berlin Wall had been standing for just two years.

His now-famous words, "Ich bin ein Berliner," were seen as a show of solidarity with many unsure of West Germany's place on the new world stage. It remains one of his most iconic speeches, despite the urban legend that Kennedy mistakenly said "I'm a jelly donut," which he didn't.

Before he became an iconic presidential figure, JFK was a young, charismatic, relatively-inexperienced politician running for president against then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960. Kennedy won by just over 118,000 votes, making him the youngest president in history.

1960: How JFK mastered 'new media'

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy are surrounded by photographers at a reception in Washington D.C. in 1963 (STEVE SCHAPIRO)

"In many ways, this can be seen as the first modern American presidential campaign, and one in which the media became very important," said Alina Heinze, director of The Kennedys, a photography museum in Berlin.

The museum's current photography exhibition, "The Campaign: Making of a President 1960 & 2016," explains how Kennedy's groundbreaking campaign set a precedent for future presidential campaigns including the tumultuous 2016 race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The exhibition, which runs through January 8, 2017, also aims to explain to those unfamiliar with American elections - which can seem like a circus compared to their German counterparts - just what goes into creating a campaign in the US.

Kennedy, in a sense, was America's first celebrity president. He still ranks as one of the country's most popular leaders, despite his questionable accomplishments in office and high-profile philandering. A key ingredient to his success was his savviness with what was then a new media: television.

"Kennedy once said, 'It was TV that made me win the vote,'" explained Heinze during a tour of the exhibition. In 1950, only 11 percent of homes in the US had a television, and by 1960 that number had risen to 88 percent, marking the dawn of television's importance in shaping public opinion.

The importance of appearance 

A campaigner with "Vote" on his forehead (STEVE SCHAPIRO)
The majority of African American voters supported Kennedy in 1960, hoping he would fight for civil rightsImage: STEVE SCHAPIRO, VOTE SELMA MARCH, ALABAMA, 1965

Nearly two thirds of the electorate - 74 million people - tuned in for the first-ever televised presidential debate in 1960. Squared against Nixon, Kennedy dressed sharply, wore makeup under the bright lights, and looked straight into the camera, not at the moderator.

Meanwhile, Nixon appeared pale and thin after a recent hospitalization; his gaze strayed from the camera while sweat ran down his face.

"Interestingly, people who watched it on TV said Kennedy had won, while many people who listened to it on the radio said Nixon was the winner," explained Heinze of the seminal television event. "This showed how [important] appearance was in this campaign."

2016: Most-watched debate

Today, television remains a valuable medium in US presidential elections. It has perhaps never been more at the forefront of a presidential campaign than in 2016, when Trump, a former reality TV star, squared off against seasoned politician Clinton in the first debate that drew 84 million viewers, making it the most-watched presidential debate in history.

Clinton was widely hailed as the winner thanks to her preparedness and calm demeanor. President-elect Donald Trump came across as ill-prepared and agitated, which may have contributed to Clinton winning the popular vote, despite her Electoral College loss.

Kennedy's campaign was one of the first in which the candidate's private wealth was put in the spotlight, also helping to increase media coverage. His father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., at the time one of the country's wealthiest men, funded a private plane for his son to tour the country in style.

Kenned (left) and Nixon during the 1960 presidential debate
Kennedy knew how to play the cameras during the 1960 debate against NixonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

He also paid for television ads, including the first "attack ad" featuring incumbent President Eisenhower and suggesting Nixon was not fit to lead.

Social media both help and stumbling block for Trump

Television advertising remains an important part of today's campaign strategy, although "The New York Times" showed that both candidates had spent far less on television advertising than candidates in the 2012 race. For Trump, this could be attributed to the "all press is good press" theory, as he was embroiled in a number of controversies during his campaign.

It's worth noting, as the exhibition points out, that since Kennedy's time the media landscape in the US has become increasingly polarized, with right-leaning channels like Fox News often giving more coverage to Republican candidates.

Would Kennedy have excelled at using social media to curate his image like today's candidates?

German illustrator Christph Niemann created this cover for the "New Yorker" during the 2012 election
German illustrator Christph Niemann created this cover for the "New Yorker" during the 2012 election, yet the image of an angrily divided America still fits todayImage: Christoph Niemann

Heinze thinks so. "What was TV in Kennedy's day, I would say is social media nowadays," she said. Just as it contributed to Barack Obama's 2008 win, social media continued to play a pivotal role, with Clinton and Trump taking to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to spread their messages.

Speaking with TV show "60 Minutes," Donald Trump said social media had contributed to his victory - if perhaps despite himself. In an effort to control his image, staff of the late night Tweet-storming president-elect took away his Twitter account of 15 million followers in the immediate run-up to election day.