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1960–Kennedy Ad–David Geaney

In 1960 Richard Nixon ran against John F. Kennedy for President of the United States of America. In August 1960 polls showed that Nixon had a slight lead over Kennedy, and many political observers considered Nixon the favorite to win. It was the events arising in the fall of 1960 that ultimately brought about the defeat Nixon’s presidential bid.

Richard Nixon used his years as Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower to present himself as an experienced politician, having already made many critical decisions in the White House. One of the main arguments the Nixon campaign made against Kennedy being elected to the White House was that his youth and inexperience could very easily be taken advantage of by the Soviet Union and those others that would seek to do harm to the United States of America.

In order to stand a viable chance against a Nixon, who had vastly more experience in White House politics than Kennedy did, the Kennedy campaign needed to strike at the foundation for Nixon’s claim to experience: his years in the Vice Presidency under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon often claimed that his years as Vice President under Dwight D Eisenhower had provided him with critical decision making experience within the White House, a claim that Kennedy’s campaign was originally unable to successfully dispel and could most definitely never match. This decision making experience within the White House gave Nixon a distinct advantage over Kennedy who did not have White House credentials. The Kennedy campaign needed to find a way to put Nixon’s decision making experience into question, so that Nixon would not be able to use Kennedy’s relative youth and inexperience against him as frequently and successfully as he had been throughout the campaign.

Just the opportunity to challenge Nixon’s decision making credentials arose after an August of 1960 press conference with President Eisenhower. During the press conference, Charles Mohr of Time, asked President Eisenhower if he could give an example of a major idea presented by Nixon, which he had heeded. President Eisenhower jokingly responded “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”  Although later, both Eisenhower and Nixon claimed the response was in jest, this comment ultimately hurt the Nixon campaign and his claim to having more decision making experience than Kennedy. It hurt him so much so that the Kennedy campaign used a clip of what Eisenhower said and placed it into a political ad challenging Nixon’s decision making experience in the White House. The political ad started by saying that Nixon claimed he had more experience than Kennedy and made it seem like he even had decision making experience within the White House. The political ad used the question asked by Charles Mohr and the joking response given by Eisenhower, combined with another audio clip of the press conference in which Eisenhower said “No one can make a decision except me.” This was intended to make the American people question whether Nixon had made any decisions at all within the White House. The ad directly challenged that Nixon had any more decision making experience than Kennedy did, putting one of the primary advantages Nixon had into question. This helped to level the playing field between the two candidates, as Nixon often used his time as Vice President to show that he had vastly more experience than Kennedy, who had never held position in the White House.

The Kennedy campaign’s ad against the decision making experience of Richard Nixon was a success. The American people were forced to question whether Richard Nixon had any decision making experience, and whether one of Nixon’s primary advantages was nothing more than talk. The wide circulation of the ad helped to distribute the idea to the American people that Richard Nixon did not have as much experience making decisions as he claimed to have.

While no one can say whether one particular aspect of a campaign resulted in that presidential bid being a success or failure, because the 1960 election between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon was so close, and 16 states were won by a margin of 2.5 percent or less, it must be asked whether Kennedy would have won if he had been unable to undermine Nixon’s experience as a decision maker in the White House. Ultimately no one will ever know, but it is undeniable that the Kennedy campaigns ability to bring Nixon’s decision making experience into question was a pivotal part of the 1960 campaign and helped to level the playing field between both candidates, despite Kennedy’s relative youth and inexperience.


Leip, David. 1960 Presidential Election ResultsDave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (February 7, 2008).


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