On November 14, 1959, TV Guide published a brief essay about politics and television by Senator John F. Kennedy that contained some prophetic words about the influence of money and public relations on presidential campaigns that still seem true today.
Ironically, within a year of the TV Guide article, Kennedy would be president-elect of the United States, in no small part helped by his ability to use television as a campaign tool. And Kennedy’s effectiveness as a “TV candidate” would become a template for future politicians.
But in 1959, Kennedy said that campaign contributions and the presentation of candidates for a mass television audience were two trends that voters needed to watch closely.
Kennedy’s articles appeared as part of a series called “Television As I See It,” and his article was titled “A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene.”
“It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist,” concluded Kennedy.
Kennedy spent much of his essay stating how television, in the right hands, could help politicians bring out their best moments.
“Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence—the presence or lack of these of other qualities make up what is called the candidate’s ‘image,’” he wrote. Kennedy then states that despite a candidate’s public record on issues, “My own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.” But in the wrong hands, television could be used for “manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks,” Kennedy said. “It can be abused by demigods, by appeals to emotions and prejudice and ignorance,” he said.
Kennedy then railed about the potential takeover of campaigns by public relations experts. “Political shows like quiz shows can be fixed—and sometimes are,” he said. The other problem Kennedy warned about was the item of “financial cost.”
“If all parties and candidates are to have equal access to this essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming deeply obligated to the big financial contributors … then the time has come when a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs.” Kennedy was particularly upset that a total of $5.8 million had been spent on TV advertising during the 1956 presidential campaign.
In the following year, as a presidential candidate, Kennedy would come under criticism for allegedly employing some of the tactics he warned about in the TV Guide article. Kennedy and Richard Nixon each raised and spent about $10 million in the 1960 campaign, about $2 million more than President Dwight Eisenhower needed in 1956. Kennedy, as the richest person ever elected president, also didn’t lack for resources.
In 1964, the price of a presidential campaign jumped to $16 million for contender Barry Goldwater and the era of big spending on campaigns started.
By 2012, the presidential campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cost an estimated $2.76 billion, with much of that money going into media buys. The 2016 contest featuring Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton cost about $2.65 billion.
To relate those numbers to the Nixon-Kennedy era, Nixon and Kennedy combined spent about $161 million in 2016 dollars on their campaigns, using the CPI to calculate inflation. It was the 1968 race featuring Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and a slew of primary candidates that set the tone for future campaign spending, with a total of nearly $600 million in current-dollar spending. It would be the most expensive presidential election on record until the 2004 Bush-Kerry race.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.