Building a media presence, circa the mid-1950s

I cannot blame the frigid weather leading up to the hibernal solstice for the delay in The Weekly Packet. In keeping with the principle of reporting old news, I have been researching the background of a speech President Kennedy gave at Amherst College on October 26th, 1963. The ultimate motivation for this is a project that some Amherst alumni have put together for the upcoming 100th anniversary of Kennedy’s birth, but that’s not the subject for these musings.

Instead, the subject that really fascinates me is that my background reading, now fairly extensive, has persuaded me that two very famous individuals in mid-20th century America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Robert Frost, were early successful practitioners of the art of manipulating the media to build a public image.

Who was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, really? The vast JKF literature obscures more than enlightens us on that question. Those of us who were young adults in the early 1960s have to struggle to recall our views of the President in October 1963 and separate them from the many different versions that emerged after November of that year.

JFK was seven years older than George H.W. Bush, but he remains frozen in our memories at the age of 46. He was a member of a rich and famous family and something of a war hero. As a Massachusetts politician, he had won election to 3 successive terms as a congressman and then 2 more as senator. He won the 1960 Presidential election over Richard Nixon by only 112,827 (0.17%) votes nationwide to become the nation’s first Catholic president. He also had some credibility as a writer. A revised version of his Harvard undergraduate thesis had been published in 1940 as Why England Slept, and he had received a 1957 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage.

Respected biographers including Robert Dallek in An Unfinished Life (Dallek R. An Unfinished Life. John F. Kennedy. 1917-1963. Little Brown & Co. Boston. 2003) and David Nasaw in The Patriarch (Nasaw D. The Patriarch. The Remarkable Life and Turbulent times of Joseph P. Kennedy. The Penguin Press. New York. 2012) have documented that JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy (“Joe Sr.”) the undisputed head of the clan, provided the motivation, direction, and financing for Jack’s political career. Dallek credits Joe Sr. with recognizing that, “High public office, which FDR’s administration opened to Catholics and Jews, had replaced accumulating money as the greater social good and a worthy aspiration for second- and third-generation immigrants reaching for higher social status.”

After Joe Jr., the eldest of the Kennedy siblings and the senior Kennedy’s choice for a political career, died flying a Navy combat mission in 1944, Jack was the natural next-in-line. Joe, Sr. gave him no choice. Despite Jack’s life-long history of chronic illnesses and well-documented, sometimes ethically dubious, supportive paternal interventions, by the time John F. Kennedy embarked on his campaign for the presidency, the Kennedy political organization had carefully polished the public image of JFK as the tanned, fit WWII hero of PT-109, as a writer with two books and a Pulitzer prize (Profiles in Courage) to his credit, as a foreign-policy expert in the U.S. Senate, and as a loving husband and father with a beautiful wife and baby daughter.

Robert Frost, four-time winner of the Pulitzer prize, was the first poet ever to speak at a presidential inauguration, Kennedy’s. Frost himself worked hard to contrive his own public image. As his biographer, Jay Parini, (Paarini J. Robert Frost. A Life. Henry Holt and Co. 1999. New York) said, “He liked to mythologize himself, and had a vested interest in putting forward certain views of himself.”  Even though he was a San Francisco native and his father had been a newspaper editor, Frost played the crusty New England farmer. In fact, after his father’s death, his penniless family moved to the factory town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. He experienced recurrent bouts of depression, dropped out of Dartmouth and later dropped out of Harvard, and tried unsuccessfully to support himself and his family by teaching and journalism. His grandfather underwrote him with an inheritance that provided an annuity and the Derry, N.H. farm (“the Magoon place”) where Frost and his family lived on the margin as farmers from the fall of 1900 until September of 1909. At that point, when the Frosts moved back into town, Robert began teaching again, this time with considerably more success.

His grandfather’s will permitted Frost to sell the Derry farm in November, 1911, which he did. And although he had continued to write while working the farm, Frost’s breakthrough as a poet would come not in New England, but during the two years that he spent in England, September 1912 through February 1915, financed by the sale.

The small English publishing house of David Nutt accepted Frost’s first collection of poems, A Boy’s Will, late in 1912. As a published American poet in England, Frost quickly developed contacts with Ezra Pound, Yeats, and T.E. Hulme, (hardly the crowd at the Derry town meeting) and over the following eight months, he completed “nearly a dozen finished poems…including “Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “Birches” – four of the best-known poems in the whole of American literature.”

Concerned about indiscriminate German submarine attacks on passenger liners, the Frosts left England in February, 1915. His plan, as he said in a letter, was to find “a farm in New England where I could live cheap and get Yankier and Yankier.”  Robert Frost had developed a clear, unique vision of his public image.

These two great Americans fired the national imagination with creations, essentially, of their public relations efforts. Fortunately, both of them had taken the high road with their creativity. Nonetheless, others quickly saw and understood that in an age increasingly driven by the media image-building, or what we now know as public relations and media presence, would become critical to public life. In The Weekly Packet, I set out to report old news thinking that a few weeks would be adequate to “let the dust settle a bit.” Now, I’m beginning to wonder. Should we, in preparation for the upcoming January inaugural, be dusting off our histories of James Buchanan?