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. Issues, however, also played a role in the election, and the nation’s foreign policy was a major bone 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. He 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 further 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, 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% is the highest of any president in Gallup’s history of systematically measuring job approval.