Arts & Culture / Mosaic / January 28, 2009

Historic elections, past and present

These past few months have seen a whirlwind of political activity both nationally and on the Knox campus. With the presidential election decided last November, students celebrated the change, as TKS reported. Many students also watched the inaugural address last week together in class, in the Gizmo, in Post Lobby and in their suites in order to hear what the new president, Barack Obama, would say.

The historic nature of this campaign was also something to be celebrated. Obama, the first African-American president, was sworn into office without a hitch (minus some minor stumbling by Chief Justice John Roberts.) Throughout his campaign, Obama was compared to another president from an ethnic minority who promised change: John F. Kennedy. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960 and became the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States.

Back in 1960, however, Knox students were not as excited about change as they are today. The Knox Student ran no large headlines, such as “Obamaramanomenon!” to celebrate Kennedy’s election. They did not even run a story about the election after it happened; rather only half a column was dedicated to the event.

In fact, according to a mock election done in October of 1960 by Knox students, Richard M. Nixon was favored to win the election. The results, printed in the October 28, 1960 issue of TKS stated that 80 percent of Knox students participated in the election, voting in 30 precincts. Nixon won 456 ballots, or 62.9 percent of the vote, while Kennedy only won 260 ballots, or 35.1 percent. The vote was a project for professor Joe Bindley’s practical politics program at Knox, which had also held a mock vote in April, which correctly predicted Kennedy would win the Democratic nomination.

A few weeks later, Knox welcomed Robert F. Kennedy, John’s brother and future Secretary of State, who campaigned for Kennedy before the election. According to TKS, Robert spoke to an “overflowing crowd” in Beecher chapel about his brother. According to that same issue, he “attacked the record of the Eisenhower administration and questioned the qualifications of Vice-President Nixon for the Presidency.”

He said Nixon should have known better than to think the American people would believe that he had sincerely changed after switching positions on several important issues. He also promised Kennedy would move the country forward. He thought the situation for Kennedy looked “promising” in Illinois but said, “A Kennedy victory would come only through the efforts of the Democrats in getting out the vote on Election Day.”

A column in TKS that week also reminded readers about the significance of the 1960 campaign.

“The voting on the 8th of November will end one of the most vigorous campaigns in American history. Never before have two presidential candidates exposed themselves so much for examination and evaluation…the ‘Great Debates’ of 1960 have given the country an opportunity to see and hear the candidates that possibly no other electorate in the history of politics has ever had,” stated the columnist, P.D.H. The column refers to the fact that the Kennedy-Nixon debates were the first of their kind to be televised, the first time an image of rival candidates was projected for all to see in a new medium. In the 2008 election, the Internet became another new, important media form to propel Obama into candidacy and then presidency.

P.D.H’s column later says, “We can expect intelligent conduct of foreign affairs from a Kennedy administration, motivated by sound principles of diplomacy other than by the Madison Avenue techniques of Nixon-Lodge…In summary, if the country is going to have any chance of retaining the traditional ‘American Way of Life’ with maximum freedom in intellectual, political and even economic areas, this way of life that Mr. Nixon talks about so strongly, it is going to have to elect his opponent, Mr. Kennedy.”

The columnist might have been excited when Kennedy emerged victorious on the eighth of November; however, TKS reflected a lack of enthusiasm from the campus community. Only a picture of Robert when he was in Galesburg appeared on the front page to commemorate the victory. There was no story attached to the picture and the lead headline was about celebrating parents’ weekend at Knox.

The TKS staff commented on the election, saying that Nixon had “tremendous advantages” as a result of his vice presidency and the “popular vote was extremely close, but the electoral college totals were decisive enough to indicate a substantial victory for Kennedy.”

The staff also hoped that there would be “no agitation among the Republicans for the abolition of the Electoral College.” In the end, the column read that “the Eisenhower policies of status quo have done enough damage to the position of the country through 1960. In essence, what we must all now do is assist the new administration in helping America ‘move ahead again.’”

Kennedy’s inauguration garnered even less attention than his election, with only an editorial and story about Kennedy’s political promises. Certainly, the students in 1960 did not feel Kennedy’s election historic or even worthy of a front-page story. It was not until later that the students realized Kennedy’s significance. There was neither community reaction nor hope for what Kennedy might do published within TKS’s pages.

Either way, TKS concluded its feelings about the inauguration by saying, “We feel confident that [Kennedy’s] promise to move ahead with vigor shall be kept. It remains for the American people to accept the challenges he proposes. We are confident that the country, potentially resourceful as it is, will respond.” This is still relevant advice, even in the modern Obama era.

Laura Miller

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