Saturday, August 2, 2014

Nixon-Kennedy: Out with the old, in with the almost as old

JFK's oft-celebrated youth is one of the reasons he became a teen idol. Unlike ancient Eisenhower, Kennedy didn't look like a guy with breath like Tutankhamen's, and wasn't known to be as fragile (though he was quite fragile). What better symbol of the dawning of America's dominance in the world than a nubile chap as young and vibrant as our country was said to be.

Ointment, meet fly: Nixon was only four years older (and far more physically capable than the infirm Kennedy), yet the way the 1960 election is discussed you'd think Nixon was old enough to have been best man at Henry VIII's first wedding.

Not so with Kennedy; he probably used a fake ID! He may as well have ridden a surfboard into office. Youth man, that's what JFK was about. I mean, the hit music of Nixon's youth was soooo Duke Ellington, while the hit music of Kennedy's youth was, uh, also Duke Ellington...

Kennedy and Nixon were so close in age their lives overlap. Nixon was in law school at the same time Kennedy was entering Harvard. Both were in WWII. Both won their first election the same year. But even today, with the zeal of Kennedymania five decades behind us, the Kennedy youth narrative of that election endures, facts schmacts.

But even if 47-year-old Nixon had beaten 43-year-old Kennedy, it still wouldn't have been a standout occurrence. There were several under-50 Presidents:

Teddy Roosevelt assumed office at 42 after McKinley intercepted a bullet, but was elected in his own right at an embryonic 46.
Grant was 46
Cleveland was 47 (one of the very few non-prostitutes to become President)
Pierce was 48
Polk was 49
Garfield was 49.

Not shocking no one noticed this. To most people history started yesterday. They vote for politicians the same way they vote for laundry detergent.

In some areas Nixon was closer to the image of the new, vibrant America. He was a social and economic outsider who gnawed his way into elite circles. Kennedy was...well, a Kennedy. If his blood were any bluer he'd look like Veruca Salt.

Nixon was from California; a then emerging locus of power in America. "Young, vibrant, new blood" Kennedy was from Massachusetts; America's Old World.

You can't even say Kennedy was a fresher face in politics; they'd been in office the same length of time.

The punchline is you're only as old as you make people think you are; not even Wikipedia can outrun a narrative.*

*The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance concerns a politician and is the finest dramatization of the power of narratives I've seen.

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