Was the popularity of the Kennedy mystique a rejection of 1950s American suburbs?

The Kennedy mystique has been well established in American culture: John F. and Jackie Kennedy swept into the White House, bringing in the television age, the space age, and jumpstarting the 1960s. But I hadn’t connected this mystique to what critics saw as the bland American suburbs of the 1950s:

In the normal course of the apparat’s work, elevating the Kennedys requires the denigration of the Eisenhowers, the 1950s, and the supposed dullness of the country that the Kennedys rescued us from—“our country of suburbs and Ozzie and Harriet, poodle skirts and one kind of cheese,” as Diane Sawyer oddly put it, while the screen showed a golden brick of Velveeta. Jackie by contrast wore clothes by designers who would have gone into a dead faint at the sight of a poodle skirt. When the Kennedys moved in, added the court historian Michael Beschloss, “we had a White House that looked like a bad convention hotel.” The Kennedys brought French cuisine to the White House, Diane Sawyer added. “No more Eisenhower cheese sauce and cole slaw. .??.??. In our middle-class nation, it wasn’t easy for us to fathom this first lady.” Jackie herself is heard complaining about the marks that Ike’s golf shoes left in the flooring. Dwight Eisenhower, lumbering ox.

This view of the suburbs fits well with a set of suburban critiques that began in the 1950s: the suburbs were bland, about conformity, and were populated by people who couldn’t really act like those nice suburban families on TV and who had popular tastes. In comparison to the Eisenhowers and Ozzie and Harriet on TV, the Kennedys were the cultural elite, the fashionable who had refined tastes and opinions. This same argument can be heard today and still pits two sets of people against each other: the urban intellectuals versus the middle class suburbanites, progressives versus conservatives, fashionable and novel versus bland and predictable, novel versus boring, upscale shoppers versus Walmart (or maybe Target on the slightly higher end) patrons. Perhaps it all goes back to those arguments in the early years of America when Thomas Jefferson advocated for a more rural America and Alexander Hamilton pushed for the capital to be in New York City.

Quick Review: The Sixth Floor Museum

During a short trip to Dallas, I had a chance to visit The Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas Book Depository. This is, of course, the site from where Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy. A few thoughts about this intriguing museum:

1. There is a lot of interesting material about the event including photographs, videos, models, and artifacts. I have read multiple books on the subject and there were a number of features of that day that I had forgotten. It was a nice mix of media through which to explore that fateful day.

1a. One video featured the national TV news coverage in the days after the assassination. From what I saw, it looked like those few days were a quick foreshadowing of the 24/7 news we have today. After the shooting, the major news networks had live coverage for much of the next few days and NBC even captured the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby live on a Sunday.

2. It was hard not to feel a sense of sadness when hearing about the death of a President. This sadness was not just limited to the feelings of people at the time (and there was a 10-minute video showing the somber scenes in Washington D.C. as JFK’s body was led through the streets) but it was noticeable among those in the museum. There was a guestbook at the end of the museum and a number of people had signed it and expressed their condolences and emotions. I was not alive on that day but I could see why it was a momentous day for many Americans.

3. The museum had more than I expected about the possible conspiracies. I would be curious to hear how the museum decided to present these – they can’t really be ignored and this is why many people are interested in the event but many of the conspiracies have a limited basis in facts. One of the more interesting displays in the museum was one that showed the numerous governmental commissions that examined the issue between 1963 and 1980.

3a. One thought I had when standing next to the recreated corner where Oswald shot from was that it would have been a difficult shot to hit a person in a moving vehicle with trees in the way. There is some dispute about how good of a marksman Oswald was. I’d like to read more about how difficult of a shot this really was.

3b. One area where there was less information regarded the backstory of Lee Harvey Oswald. While they hinted at his convoluted story of defecting to the Soviet Union and then returning to the United States, there is a lot of other curious information they could have displayed.

4. The museum was quite positive about JFK’s legacy. Perhaps they are simply reflecting the positive way in many Americans view JFK (more info here).

5. I have mixed feelings about having a gift shop at the end of such an experience.

Overall, I imagine this would be an intriguing museum for many Americans and not just those interested in history or Presidents.

Kennedy/Nixon debate fanfare overblown?

Fifty years ago yesterday, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate. The debate supposedly “changed the world” and the narrative of the Kennedy win has long been part of history:

It’s now common knowledge that without the nation’s first televised debate – fifty years ago Sunday – Kennedy would never have been president. But beyond securing his presidential career, the 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and Vice President Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media and America’s political history. “It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically – in this case, in a single night,” says Alan Schroeder, a media historian and associate professor at Northeastern University, who authored the book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.

But after reading and reviewing the book Getting It Wrong, I’m a little more skeptical of these claims. So let me be the contrarian for a moment and suggest why this media moment from 1960 is overhyped:

1. It is part of the lore of JFK. It was in this moment that the country saw his youthful charm and in contrast, Nixon’s shadiness. JFK’s image fit television perfectly and the media has since played up the Kennedy family as American political royalty. Of course, JFK’s charm was likely evident elsewhere and Nixon was still elected president twice (after having served as vice-president under Eisenhower).

2. It suggests televised debates, in general, are critically important for elections. I’m not sure about this – I think the media thinks they are more important than they are. By always looking for a “winner” and “loser,” candidates are set up to succeed or fail. Television doesn’t lend itself to nuanced debates about critical issues; it is perfect for sound-bites and unflappable dispositions. If the voters care about debates, it is because they have been told that such debates matter.

3. Overall, it suggests TV can be an important contributor to democracy rather than just the source of junk television shows. This is debatable.