The 1960 presidential campaign has earned a special place in American political history and popular culture. The campaign was dominated by two unforgettable candidates, Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democrat, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican.
The race included consequential and vivid secondary characters such as retiring President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, JFK’s running mate. The fiercely contested campaign featured, and was profoundly influenced by, the first televised debates and was decided by a razor-thin margin. The election was followed by a dramatic changing of the guard in Washington, as the oldest president in American history, the 70-year-old Eisenhower, was replaced by the youngest elected chief executive, the 43-year-old Kennedy. Finally, the campaign was brought to life by television and several remarkable chronicles, including a controversial magazine article by Norman Mailer that the writer credited with helping to push Kennedy over the edge of victory and ushering in a new form of first-person journalism.
“Norman Mailer. JFK. Superman Comes to the Supermarket” is a 21st-century homage to that article and to one of the most riveting political events of the 20th century. The book is a lush, even lavish, account of the 1960 presidential campaign. It’s a large book, literally, running 370 pages and weighing almost 10 pounds, with coffee-table dimensions tucked into a cardboard carrying case. The book is published by Taschen, a German-based company that specializes in art, photography, painting, design, fashion, film, architecture and popular culture books.
“Norman Mailer. JFK. Superman Comes to the Supermarket” has three parts. First, there are more than 300 photographs related to the 1960 campaign; then, there is Mailer’s famous essay, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” that was published in Esquire magazine on the eve of the election; and finally, there are detailed chronologies of Kennedy’s personal life, political career and presidential contest.
Amazing photographs are the heart and soul of this book, with most depicting JFK during his quest for the presidency. About two-thirds of the photos are in black and white and wonderfully evoke the feel and texture of the time. Several of the most remarkable images are spread over two pages in what the publisher describes, perhaps tongue-in-check, as “heroic size.” The photos are the work of several of the great photojournalists of the second half of the 20th century: Cornell Capa, Henri Dauman, Jacques Lowe, Lawrence Schiller, Paul Schutzer, Stanley Tretick, Hank Walker and Garry Winogrand.
The photographs reveal Kennedy as an ambitious, determined and dogged candidate who would go any place and meet anyone to advance his campaign. They convey JFK’s many moods during his race for the presidency: serious, bemused, concentrated, playful, intense, exhausted, worried, exuberant, detached and triumphant. The mostly chronological presentation of photos traces the trajectory of the campaign, from Kennedy’s official announcement of his candidacy on Jan. 2, 1960, in the Senate Caucus Room; to the early primaries in the cold and snow of Wisconsin; to the summer heat of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles; and then the autumn chill across America during the final weeks before the election. Finally, we see JFK at home in Hyannis Port, Mass., on Election Day, nervously awaiting the returns with his family and aides.
“Norman Mailer. JFK. Superman Comes to the Supermarket” provides a striking perspective on American politics. We experience the momentum of the campaign — the sparse crowds and lonely motorcades at the outset succeeded by the surging crowds and palpable enthusiasm of the homestretch. We see campaign buttons and hats, makeshift podiums, simple voting tally boards, streaming confetti and people staring at the candidate from stairs, balconies, fire escapes and sidewalks. We feel like we are there.
The photos also offer powerful and poignant glimpses of America in 1960, with its small towns, large cities, diners, hotels and interested citizens. Men often attend campaign events in suits and ties while women wear dresses. The politics of this time seems less staged than now, almost like a sacred civic ritual.
“Norman Mailer. JFK. Superman Comes to the Supermarket” confirms the cliché that a good picture is worth a thousand words. There are so many memorable photos it’s hard to know where to begin. Some of the highlights include:
• JFK officially announcing his presidential bid in the Senate Caucus Room, packed with reporters and aides standing in the background.
• Jackie Kennedy slumped in a chair after a day on the campaign trail, weary and unguarded. In the caption, she is quoted as saying that her face hurt because she had to smile all day.
• Kennedy standing on a tractor in West Virginia, addressing a small group of schoolchildren on a hillside. There is another great photo of Kennedy sitting on a step in his suit and tie, talking with a group of coal miners who are taking a break from their work.
• A wonderful series of photos from the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that speaks volumes about the convention as political carnival and human theater.
• An iconic photo of JFK in a hotel room, huddled in serious conversation with his brother and campaign manager, Robert.
• A young couple sitting by candlelight on an outdoor Park Avenue terrace in New York City, watching a debate between Kennedy and Nixon on their small TV.
• Vice presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson shouting in anger at protestors at an airport rally in Texas. JFK is in the background and steps forward to restrain his furious running mate.
• The inaugural dais on the Capitol just minutes before Kennedy is sworn in as president. JFK is chatting with Eisenhower, while LBJ and Nixon (the two men who will succeed Kennedy) are involved in their own private discussion.
• JFK and Jackie being driven in a convertible from the Capitol to the White House on Inauguration Day, waving to the crowd in a moment of triumph that also foreshadows their trip through Dallas in a convertible less than three years later that will end with JFK’s assassination. (The book has about a dozen photos of JFK in convertibles, often in the middle of surging crowds, with little apparent security, all of which foreshadow Kennedy’s death in Dallas.)
The textual core of the book is Mailer’s provocative 14,000-word essay that ran in Esquire just weeks before the 1960 election. At the time, Mailer was one of America’s most famous writers. An acclaimed novelist, he also wrote poetry, short stories, stage plays, screenplays, TV mini-series and essays. He was one of the originators of what was called New Journalism, a literary movement in the 1960s that employed fictional narrative techniques when writing about real events.
In the summer of 1960, Mailer agreed to write about the presidential campaign for Esquire, largely focused on the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Mailer’s article was published just three weeks before Election Day and attracted considerable attention. Mailer sometimes claimed it provided a critical boost to Kennedy’s campaign and contributed to his narrow victory.
In the essay, Mailer argued that America had lost its energy and purpose after eight listless years of the Eisenhower administration. The United States, he declared, needed an “existential” hero to rescue it from its torpor and infuse it with purpose and passion. That hero, in Mailer’s account, is JFK. He saw Kennedy as a politician with conventional policies but who was also daring, brave and bold. He said Kennedy decided to run for president years before party elders believed he should, thus breaking established rules and risking “political suicide” to seek the White House.
Mailer is best at setting scenes. This is how he described Kennedy arriving at the Biltmore in Los Angeles, the main hotel of the Democratic Convention: “One saw him immediately. He had the deep orange-brown suntan of a ski instructor, and when he smiled at the crowd his teeth were amazingly white and clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards.”
Mailer later described JFK at a convention press conference as a man who had “a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round. There was a good lithe wit to his responses, a dry Harvard wit, a keen sense of proportion in disposing of difficult questions,” Mailer wrote. “Yet there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind…. Kennedy seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom, but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing.”
Mailer later wrote than JFK had “a subtle, not quite describable intensity, a suggestion of dry pent heat…. He had the eyes of a mountaineer. His appearance changed with his mood.”
Expanding on this theme, Mailer argued that “Kennedy’s most characteristic quality is the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others.”
Mailer portrayed the race between Kennedy and Nixon as a choice between the risky and bold and the conventional and dull. Nixon, he wrote, was “the apotheosis of opportunistic lead, all radium spent,” while Kennedy was “handsome as a prince in the unstated aristocracy of the American dream.”
In a later essay written in 1963, also published in this book, Mailer backtracked on his original work and called his “Superman” essay “propaganda,” adding, “I was forcing reality.” He believes he overestimated Kennedy as a force for change in his lofty portrayal of the charismatic candidate.
Extensive chronologies and notes comprise the final part of the book and place Kennedy’s life and political career in context. One section, “JFK: A Life, 1917-1963,” summarizes his journey from young boy, to World War II hero in the South Pacific, to congressional candidate, to senator and then president.
“Norman Mailer. JFK. Superman Comes to the Supermarket” is a delightful book that is both fun and educational. The photographs tell the story of JFK and his political career vividly and evocatively; they transport us back in time. The notes and chronologies are clear and helpful, summarizing both JFK’s career and the 1960 campaign. Mailer’s essay is an interesting, provocative example of New Journalism style and should be read as an intriguing contemporary perspective on JFK and his campaign, rather than as a definitive account of the 1960 election.
While this book is about JFK, I would have preferred a few more photographs of Nixon, the other figure in this drama. Nixon, after all, almost won the election. But in this book, Nixon’s role is limited to that of villain and foil.
“Norman Mailer. JFK. Superman Comes to the Supermarket” is an excellent complement to other books on the 1960 election. My favorite is still Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1960.” Other interesting and more recent books include: “The First Modern Campaign” by Gary Donaldson; “1960 — LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon” by David Pietrusza; “The Real Making of the President” by W.J. Rorabaugh; and “Kennedy v. Nixon” by Edmund Kallina.
John F. Kennedy’s ability to fascinate only seems to grow with the passage of time. This book will add to the enduring intrigue and allure of JFK.
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.