As President Obama and his Republican candidate Mitt Romney count down the minutes until the results of their 2012 White House campaigns, we must stop to congratulate them both for the things they have in common - the tireless efforts from state to state, the fixed grins, the slick presentations, the appearance of casual intimacy with the punters, behind which a thousand strategic wheels are churning.
But it wasn't always like this. Watching 'JFK's Road To The White House' - a pioneering cinema verite documentary charting the charismatic candidate's 1960 primary contest against Senator Hubert Humphrey in the chilly Wisconsin - it's clear that JFK and his telegenic ways changed the nature of political campaigns forever.
JFK - 1960 - up close and personal in a documentary charting his campaign
We see a candidate's view of the process, and an intimate view of the candidates themselves. Here are just a few things we got to witness, arguably for the very first time, but we've seen many, many times since...
- The sheer effort involved - the roads travelled, intense concentration, to cross wide states and grab every vote. The fixed grins as they shake a million hands, thanking each and every one and trying to keep it personal. What we see is that candidates need to have a whole bucket load of charm in reserve, as well as interest in people, and an inherent desire to be liked by both small boys and little old ladies. Bill Clinton is the oft-reported master of this, Barack Obama not so much.
- Senator Humphrey could turn it on for the man in the street, asking a small boy for some money to help. "It's fake money? That might just work." But there was a chasm between his good manners, and the effortless wit of Kennedy (Boris Johnson, we salute you).
- Even at this early stage in the campaign, Kennedy could reach for his history books and Socratic pronunciations, talking of “campfires of enemy burning on distant hills”. His resounding powers of rhetoric married with his youthful appeal, and he was just warming up.
- JFK emergence coincided with the golden age of telly, a medium he understood and embraced. He happily obeyed a floor manager's instructions to "move a little to your left", so his broad face was beamed into living rooms across the country. And we all know how poor Richard Nixon fared in the televised debates later in the campaign. Ever since, the debates have proved to be make-or-break moments.
- Politicians became rock stars for the first time. As school children clamoured for JFK's autograph, the camera followed the candidate from behind, catching the crowds, the cheers, the flashbulbs. Once again, the appeal of youth - "he's got a good head of hair," beamed one voter, proudly - was all too evident. The dilemma ever since has been how to marry this to the sobriety and experience needed for huge decision-making.
- For the first time, the candidate's wife came to the fore. Jackie was feared to be too aristocratic by the Kennedys to appeal to the common man, but she proved a highly valuable campaign asset and, when she dared speak a bit of Polish to a highly immigrant population in Wisconsin, how they swooned.
- Jackie Kennedy was as popular, and inspected, as her husband
- We saw in what weird directions voters joined the dots. Despite Mr Kennedy "making it clear he will not be dictated to by Rome" some voters still would not vote for a Catholic, with his potential "allegiance outside of the United States" - something Barack Obama can rue on when asked, once again, to prove his Americanship by Donald Trump.
Candidates have had to be tirelessly well-mannered friendly, interested and interesting, for a chance to get elected... possibly harder than running the country
JFK - one of the first politicians to understand the power of the box
And 8 things we definitely don't see any more…
- News readers earnestly doing their job, questioning politicians live on television, amidst puffs of smoke from chain-smoked cigarettes.
- A candidate such as Humphrey getting knee-deep involved in strategy on grassroots level, instructing his staff "what you have to do is remind these people to call person to person". Somehow that would appear unseemly these days.
- We see the candidates waiting while the results come in over the phone. They have fixed grins on their faces, but it's obviously unbelievably tense, with Kennedy's anxious cigar-puffing giving him away.
- JFK arguing by phone over a quote being directly or indirectly attributed to him… "I don't care whether they print it or not." Strategists these days would be blowing a gasket long before it came to this kind of altercation.
- The Ewww factor. Humphrey tells one voter, "If you have as much judgement for politics as for your wife, we might just win…" and remarks to a bunch of volunteers, "With you girls working for me, we'll win…" Candidates are very careful these days to avoid any accusations of… Ewwwness.
- Imagine getting a custom-made song like Kennedy did in 1960, with everyone chortling 'High Hopes' everywhere he went? Helped along by one Mr Sinatra.
- "The Fire dept asks you not to smoke for 20 minutes. There has been a complaint that one lady has her dress burnt by a man smoking a cigar."
- Hats. Everywhere. A much-missed loss from the current political, and social, landscape.
John F Kennedy looks pretty relaxed for someone whose political fortune is resting on a few votes either way
You can catch 'JFK's Road to the White House: Primary 1960' on BBC iPlayer. Here's some newsreel catching bits of the action...
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