OTD in History… November 8, 1960, John F Kennedy is the first Catholic and youngest ever elected president

Bonnie K. Goodman
11 min readNov 12, 2018


By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history, November 8, 1960, Democratic nominee Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts is elected president after winning in a close race against Republican nominee and Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy became the youngest president ever elected at 43 years old and the first Catholic. Kennedy’s youth and inexperience in foreign policy with the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Communism and his Roman Catholic religion and anti-Catholic prejudice became the main issues of the campaign. No Catholic had been nominated since the Democrats nominated Al Smith in 1928 and he was trounced in the general election and anti-Catholic prejudice ran deep. Although Nixon was only four years older, Nixon had served eight years as vice president under popular President Dwight Eisenhower and often served as a foreign policy surrogate. The Democrats used Nixon’s experience against him claiming America was in a decline under the Eisenhower Administration, with Kennedy saying, “Mr. Nixon is experienced, experienced in policies of retreat, defeat, and weakness” (Boller, 298)

The close and bitter race took a tide with the introduction of four televised presidential debates, where Kennedy’s youthfulness and charm benefitted him in contrast with Nixon, who had been ill over a rigorous campaign schedule. The first debate solidified Kennedy as the one to beat. The introduction of debates would change the presidential campaign game and would become a staple of the cycle after 1976 when they would be reintroduced bringing image and personality to the forefront. After the results were tabulated there was barely a quarter of a percentage point between the two nominees in the popular vote with Kennedy winning 303 Electoral College votes to Nixon’s 219 in what was one of the closest presidential elections in history.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

During the primaries, there were three serious contenders for the Democratic nomination Senators John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Lyndon Johnson of Texas. Both Kennedy and Humphrey lacked connections with the party’s power brokers; instead, they went through the primaries to gain delegate support. Kennedy participated in nine primaries; won Wisconsin with heavy Catholic vote; run against Humphrey in West Virginia, with a heavily Protestant population and won with over 60% of the vote, and proved his appeal beyond Catholic electorate. Kennedy traveled the country persuading various state delegates to support him.

When the convention opened, Kennedy was still missing a few dozen votes to garner the nomination. Party “Favorite sons” Lyndon B. Johnson, Stuart Symington, Adlai E. Stevenson did not campaign in the primaries; they hoped to garner the nomination by becoming the “compromise” candidates after the primary contenders would not gain enough delegates to capture the nomination. Stevenson hoped for the nomination but after two failed campaigns, the party was looking for a “fresh face.” Lyndon B. Johnson, and Adlai Stevenson II, officially announced their candidacies (working privately previously) the week before the convention. Johnson challenged Kennedy in a televised debate before a joint meeting of the Texas and Massachusetts delegations, which Kennedy won, demonstrating Johnson was not viable beyond the South. Liberals who would have supported Stevenson already were pledged to Kennedy by the time Stevenson announced his candidacy.

There were only two serious contenders for the Republican nomination Vice President Richard Nixon and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The party considered Nixon a good campaigner; he had campaigned for the party for years. Rockefeller went on an exploratory tour in 1959 but did not continue pursuing the nomination leaving Nixon the front-runner. Nixon and Rockefeller compromised and secretly met Rockefeller’s Manhattan apartment to devise the Republican platform, known as the “compact of Fifth Avenue” At the Republican National Convention held on July 25–28, 1960 at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, Nixon won all but ten votes on the first ballot and chose Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts at his running-mate. In his acceptance speech, Nixon promised to “move forward” but through Republican principles, and he emphasized the Cold War, saying, “When Mr. Khrushchev says our grandchildren will live under communism, let us say his grandchildren will live in freedom.” (Boller, 297)

The Democratic National Convention was held on July 11–15, 1960, at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles. Johnson was unable to collect enough delegate support with his negotiations; as a Southerner during the civil rights movement and Johnson’s sectionalism hindered a possible candidacy. Kennedy had more delegate support going into the convention, but not enough to garner the nomination. There was a stop-Kennedy drive where delegates considered Adlai Stevenson as a compromise candidate instead of nominating Kennedy. Kennedy asked Johnson who had run against him to be his running mates, liberals believed Kennedy had betrayed his liberal principles by choosing Johnson. Kennedy chose Johnson to improve the Southern, vote, and he wanted Johnson out of the Senate to make it easier to pass his liberal legislation.

Robert Kennedy, Kennedy’s brother tried to dissuade Johnson from accepting the nomination, which remained an issue of contention between the two. Johnson accepted to be Kennedy’s running mate and the delegates unanimously nominated as their vice presidential nominee. There was a controversy with the civil rights plank where Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. of North Carolina wanted to delete several portions, which would have diluted the Democratic Party’s commitment to civil rights and desegregation. Future member of Congress Patsy Mink of Hawaii gave a televised speech before the delegates and Senator Ervin’s motions were defeated. Norman Mailer attended the convention and wrote his famous profile of Kennedy, “Superman Comes to the Supermart,” published in Esquire. In his acceptance speech, Kennedy introduced his New Frontier program and called for “a new generation of leadership — new men to cope with new problems and new opportunities.” (Boller, 297)

Nixon pledged to campaign in all 50 states, in order to attract independents, Democrats, it was the most grueling campaign schedule in history. In August, Nixon developed a knee infection, which kept him hospitalized for two weeks, and although his advisers wanted him to abandon his pledge, he insisted in continuing. Nixon campaigned as a more experienced and known candidate, minimized party labels in speeches, and emphasized voters should pick the better man. To counter, the Democrats and Kennedy claimed America was in “decline” under the Republican administration, and in addition to stumping relied heavily on television commercials to reach the voters.

The candidates agreed to participate in four nationally televised presidential debates each week from September 26 to October 21. They were the first presidential campaign debates in American history. The televised debates brought in a new era of presidential campaigning focusing more on image than substance for the nominees. The 1960 debate was the first great debate since Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas battled it out over a hundred years before in 1858 for the Senate seat from Illinois in the middle of the debate over slavery divided the nation. Although the two nominees were young, Kennedy was 43, Nixon was 47 but Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts had the image advantage over Nixon, who was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy appeared young and evanescent compared to Nixon, who looked tired and haggard. The major issue of the campaign had been the level of political experience between the two nominees, with two-term Vice President Nixon charging Kennedy of being the inexperienced one in domestic and foreign policy. The debates changed the public perception; Kennedy’s masterful use of the medium made him the clear winner of the first debate although radio listeners deemed Nixon the winner (although they were mostly rural voters and Republicans), proving the changing power television would bring to the future campaigns

Before the first most important debate, Nixon campaigned up to a few hours prior to the telecast and still had not fully recovered. He looked pale, emaciated with his stumble showing because he refused makeup. Kennedy, in contrast, rested prior to the debate appeared more youthful and healthy. Kennedy on the offensive spoke to the audience while Nixon addressed his opponent. The difference in appearances in the candidates affected the public’s perception. Those who watched the debate, named Kennedy the winner, the radio audience albeit smaller and more Republican named Nixon the winner; Nixon abided by the rules of television for the next debates, he gained weight, rested, and wore make-up. However, only a fraction of the number of viewers watched the remaining debates, 70 million Americans viewed the first debate, but a combined approximately 50 million watched the remaining three debates. Kennedy won the first debate; Nixon won the second and third debates; in the fourth, both candidates performed their strongest and it was considered a tie. More important were the four televised debates between the two contenders, the first such confrontations in history. Kennedy benefitted the most, he appeared just as confident and experienced to Vice President Nixon

Nixon would campaign as the more experienced candidate in domestic and foreign policies in comparison to Kennedy’s “youth and immaturity”; “After each of my foreign trips, I have made recommendations which were adopted. . .” President Eisenhower undercut Nixon’s experience claim when reporter Charles Mohr of Time asked the President during a press conference which major decision Nixon had been involved in, and Eisenhower responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” (Boller, 297) Supposedly, Eisenhower made the comment as a joke but the remark was so damaging to Nixon that the Democrats used in a campaign commercial. President Eisenhower would mostly sit out the campaign, made a vigorous campaign tour for Nixon over the last 10 days before the election. Eisenhower’s support gave Nixon a badly needed boost, and by Election Day the polls indicated a virtual tie.

To campaign properly, Kennedy needed to quell the concerns over his Catholic faith. On September 12, Kennedy delivered a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association attempted to diffuse the religion issue. Kennedy assured voters he believed in the separation of church and state and promised, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President, I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me.” (Boller, 298) The televised address assured many Protestant voters but did not completely extinguish the issue. Historian Thomas Carty in his book, A Catholic in the White House?, Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign analyzed, “By breaking the Protestant monopoly on the White House, however, Kennedy has come to symbolize the reality of equal opportunity in America, achieving iconic status among religious and ethnic minorities.” (Carty, 2)

On October 19, two days before the final debate, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King was arrested for trying to desegregate a restaurant in Atlanta. King was jailed along with 52 other blacks who were trying to desegregate a Georgia restaurant. King was sentenced to four months of hard labor based on breaking probation. King’s wife, Coretta, was frantic and called Harris Wofford, a Kennedy campaign aide, claiming, “they are going to kill him [King].” Wofford contacted Sargent Shriver, who was married to Kennedy’s sister Eunice. Shriver convinced Kennedy that he should telephone King’s wife, which he did, expressing his concern. Robert Kennedy, the nominee’s brother negotiated with the judge and secured a promise that King would be released on bail. In contrast, Nixon consulted with Eisenhower’s attorney general, who advised him not to intervene in the matter. The Kennedys’ intervention gained Kennedy support from African American voters, including King’s father, an influential minister who had previously supported Nixon.

By the middle of October, George Gallup predicted a close election but refused to forecast results. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report thought Kennedy would win by a good margin. Just before midnight on election night, The New York Times headlined their morning edition “Kennedy Elected President” The Times managing editor Turner Catledge writes in his memoirs that he hoped “a certain Midwestern mayor would steal enough votes to pull Kennedy through.” Early on November 9 at 3 A.M., Nixon made a speech but did not entirely concede, he did not deliver a formal concession speech. Later in the afternoon, Nixon gives a formal concession speech, and Kennedy claims victory. Republicans, Nixon, and Eisenhower thought voter fraud is involved in the slim margin of victory, especially in Texas, Lyndon Johnson’s home state, and Illinois with Mayor Richard Daley’s powerful Chicago political machine. The electoral votes from those two states determined the outcome of the election. Nixon’s campaign staff wants him to contest the election especially in the Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey contests, however, on November 13; Nixon delivers a speech that he would not contest the election ending one of the closest and bitterest campaigns in American history.

Historian Gary A. Donaldson in his book, The First Modern Campaign, Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960 noted that the 1960 election “was the nation’s first modern presidential campaign.” Donaldson explains, “By 1960, candidates would campaign on television, travel on jet airplanes to speaking engagements, and engage in long drawn-out primary campaigns. And by then, the candidates’ images had gone a long way toward replacing campaign issues. It was that presidential campaign, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy that changed the American campaign process.” (Donaldson, vii-viii)

With the introduction of televised debates Donaldson indicates, “The most obvious distinction of the 1960 campaign was the importance that image played in the outcome; for the first time in American history a candidate’s image was a deciding factor in an election.” (Donaldson, viii) The most significant impact of the 1960 election was Kennedy’s ability to break the Catholic barrier to the presidency. As historian Robert Dallek expressed in biography An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963, “For millions of ethnic Americans, Kennedy remains more than a bright, promising young president whose life and time in office was prematurely snuffed out. [Kennedy] is an enduring demonstration that ethnics and minorities, who, despite rhetoric to the contrary, did not feel fully accepted in America before 1960, have come into their own as first-class citizens.”


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Carty, Thomas. A Catholic in the White House?: Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1968. Boston, Mass: Little, Brown and Co, 2003.

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Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.



Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.