Historian on JFK's celebrity image — then and now

November 14, 2013  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The star quality that President John F. Kennedy exuded was part natural but also part strategy that he worked hard to cultivate on the campaign trail, says a Purdue University historian.

"Kennedy created his celebrity status as he sought the Democratic nomination in 1960 because he was a national party outsider," says Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an assistant professor of history who studies American politics and Hollywood. "He relied on celebrity hype to assert his political credibility as a presidential nominee on the primary trail and then eventually to win the election to the White House. He connected with people as fans first, then as voters second. This emotional appeal is still alive 50 years later."

Nov. 22 is the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination.

Other presidents were advised by celebrities behind the scenes or endorsed by them during campaigns, but Kennedy's approach was inspired by his father, who was a Hollywood executive in the 1920s, Brownell says. The young Kennedy's strategy included creating "Jack Kennedy fans," flooding all media outlets with information about his appearances and press releases, and hiring a production company to follow him around to capture fans reacting to him and asking for autographs. While he had the support of many Hollywood liberals, including Frank Sinatra and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford, Kennedy did not simply rely on endorsements to win votes. Rather, he prioritized Hollywood publicity strategies to show his electability.

"He took advantage of celebrities on the campaign trail, but he was always careful to not let them overshadow his own celebrity persona," Brownell says. "Historically, the Democratic party made decisions about presidential nominees behind closed doors with labor union leaders and party bosses. Kennedy did not have the connections of someone like Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, so he had to assert his authority in an alternative way. He did so on the primary trail using his chemistry with the camera. His efforts not only paid off in winning the presidency but also leaving a celebrity legacy that has lasted 50 years."

Brownell's research focuses on the American presidency and she is completing her book "Showbiz Politics," which examines the institutionalization of Hollywood in American politics from 1928-1980. 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Kathryn Cramer Brownell, brownell@purdue.edu 

Related websites:

College of Liberal Arts

Department of History

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