Rochester War Memorial, 9/24/16. [Photo: David Kramer]
In keeping with our Presidential visits to Rochester series (BELOW), on September 28th, 1960, Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy spoke at the War Memorial.
On September 28th, 1960, during his campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon, JFK spoke before a capacity crowd at the War Memorial on a visit cheered by 50,000.
Nixon would visit Rochester during the last week of the campaign. In 1960, with 45 electoral votes, New York State was the biggest prize in the nation. Kennedy carried New York; while Nixon narrowly won in Monroe County. Kennedy won the election with the smallest popular vote margin in history, .017%.*
Kennedy’s visit came two days after the first ever televised debate with Nixon.
In a recent New Yorker article on presidential debates, Jill Lepore writes; “ABC refused to call the event a ‘debate’—the network billed it, instead, as a ‘joint appearance.'” Like almost every other newspaper, in its headline the D & C referred to the Kennedy-Nixon “discussion” as a debate.
Frequently, media commentators note that radio listeners said Nixon won or drew; while TV viewers negatively contrasted Kennedy’s tan and fit look against a sweaty Nixon with a five o’clock shadow. Recent research has debunked this commonly heard refrain as a myth. Rochester viewers and listeners had their choice between WHEC and WHAM.
JFK’s visit is etched in the memories of many Rochesterians. Julie Everitt (who you’ve met before) saw Kennedy that day at the Manger Hotel. Julie framed the autographed he signed.
My friend Lois Tucker remembers being at the War Memorial. Lois recalls the experience:
In 1960, the voting age was 21, and I was a newly registered voter, voting for the first time….and voting for president.
One of my fellow teachers at # 19 School gave me a ticket to the campaign rally at the War Memorial.
We got there early to get a seat and waited a long time. Meanwhile, I was thinking, this guy had better be worth the wait. JFK was an electrifying speaker. Clapping and cheering, I felt fully engaged and surprised how deeply and quickly I had been moved from passivity to full participation in a crowd bent on electing this man president.
Feeling that I had seen history being made, this event began my lifelong love and participation in politics.
RFK’s political career intersected with Rochester when he won he won Rochester’s Senator Kenneth Keating’s seat in 1964. Keating would later serve as Ambassador to Israel. According to the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, New York’s Jewish voters were split between Keating and Kennedy.
In 1957, Kennedy was the main speaker at annual dinner of the Monroe County Democratic Committee (not covered by the D & C). Curiously, the announcement mentions the dinner was to be held prior to the beginning of Lent. Kennedy was, of course, Roman Catholic.
In 1958 and 1959, Kennedy spoke before Rochester Jewish groups. Jewish voters may have been attracted to Kennedy as a (relative) religious minority.
And — as described by the Rochester Review — on October 1st, 1959 JFK spoke to a full house at the University of Rochester’s Strong Auditorium.
During Kennedy’s administration U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated, the conflict his successor inherited and further escalated.