It’s no secret that John F. Kennedy’s political rise was inextricably linked to the advent of television: The TV cameras captured the young senator’s personality and good looks during the first-ever televised presidential debate in 1960.
Yet, it was a magazine essay published a few weeks before Election Day that is also credited with catapulting Kennedy into the White House.
Norman Mailer’s nearly 14,000-word Esquire magazine article, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” lavished praise on the Massachusetts Democrat, suggesting that Kennedy was America’s “existential hero.”
“With such a man in office the myth of the nation would again be engaged,” the novelist wrote. He would later boast that his essay was the reason Kennedy won the 1960 election.
Mailer’s essay anticipating Kennedy as the country’s savior has been republished in a book alongside hundreds of images — by renowned photojournalists such as Cornell Capa, Henri Dauman and Jacques Lowe — documenting Kennedy’s journey across America and eventually into the Oval Office.
These images capture Kennedy’s everyman persona on the campaign trail — walking through a West Virginia grocery store, standing on a high-chair to speak to a crowd of rural Americans, reading the paper underneath a street light.
With negative political ads taking over the airwaves in modern elections, these photos reflect a happier political climate in the United States filled with the anticipation of a new, fresh face in the White House.
Although, after the realities of political office set in and Kennedy didn’t quite live up to Mailer’s lofty expectations, the author expressed his regret at writing the article, according to the New York Times’ then-chief political correspondent Matt Bai.
“By 1963, Mailer and other idealists were crushed to discover that Kennedy was in fact a fairly conventional and pragmatic politician,” Bai wrote in 2009. He added that “Kennedy had ‘the face of a potential hero,’ (Mailer) wrote, ‘but he embodies nothing, he personifies nothing, he is power, rather a quizzical power, without light or principle.’ ”
Those concerns fell by the wayside after Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, as Americans mourned the death of a leader whose full potential would never be realized. His death just three years into his presidency would seal his legacy as one of the best-remembered American leaders of the 20th century.
- Tricia Escobedo, CNN