The Bitter Campaign over the First Catholic President

On this day in 1960, US Navy combat veteran John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest man and first Catholic ever to be elected president of the United States. Kennedy beat Republican Vice President Richard Nixon with 303 electoral votes to 229 and less than one percent in the popular vote.

The campaign was hard fought and bitter for all to see, and for the first time, presidential candidates engaged in televised debates. Many observers believed that Kennedy’s poised and charming performances during four debates made the difference in the final vote. Foreign and domestic issues, however, loomed large in the election, and provided sufficient bones of contention between Kennedy and Nixon.

Nixon took every opportunity to characterize Kennedy as too young and inexperienced to handle the awesome responsibilities of America’s Cold War diplomacy, though Nixon was only 48 months older. Nixon defended the past eight years of Republican rule, failing to see that the peace, prosperity and optimism of the Eisenhower era were personal attributes to Ike alone. Kennedy himself presaged future tactics by nimbly running to the right of the GOP on foreign policy in arguments for a “flexible response,” then tacking to the center in office.

Kennedy claimed during the campaign that he looked forward to meeting the challenges facing the strongest nation in the Free World; he did not have long to wait before those challenges were upon him. Off to fits and starts after inauguration with the Bay of Pigs and Berlin crises, Kennedy came to preside over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Peace Corps, the Civil Rights Movement, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, NASA, nuanced economic policy and a host of other New Frontier innovations setting the stage for a stellar second term in office which tragically never came.

Kennedy continues to rank highly in historians’ polls of US presidents and with the general public. His average approval rating of 70 percent is the highest of any president in Gallup’s history of systematically measuring job approval. 

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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