Hylander Shares Stories of the Kennedy-Nixon Election
Ben Stratman of Bellingham, Dr. Gary Hylander and Paul Peter, also of Bellingham
Anyone who considers history a dull topic has obviously never had an opportunity to sit in on one of Dr. Gary Hylander’s “classes.” Hylander, a professor at Stonehill College, is a born storyteller, and that’s what history is really all about—the stories. Hylander’s presentations at the Bellingham Senior Center are filled with one story after another.
His presentation at the end of October at the Bellingham Senior Center covered highlights of the 1960 election race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. We learned that there were only 16 primary races during that election cycle—quite the change from this past presidential election race. TV was quite new, and presidential debates were a novelty.
In the 1960 race, religion was a huge issue—the fact that Kennedy was a Catholic. Only 32 years prior to the 1960 election, Al Smith, a Catholic, had run against Herbert Hoover and had been crushed in that presidential election. Hylander noted that Kennedy dismissed the religion issue by saying, “I refuse to believe the day I was baptized Catholic I couldn’t then be president. No one asked me my religion when I served in the Pacific.”
While both Nixon and Kennedy were of similar age and both had served in the military during WWII, Kennedy managed to exude an air of youthfulness (despite health problems, including back pain from a war injury) while Nixon lacked Kennedy’s charm. JFK’s easy ability to respond to questions with self-deprecating humor also gave him a huge advantage over the humorless Nixon.
The primary races of 1960 were quite different from present-day primary elections. Only 16 states held primaries at that time. Kennedy’s campaign revolutionized how a presidential race was run. His organization conducted constant polling, and they rented their own private aircraft to take the candidate from event to event rather than depend on commercial carriers. They even had their own camera crew, which allowed for a quick turnaround for photos from events, rather than depending on the networks, which might or might not cover any particular campaign stop.
Hylander provided an intriguing “back story” to the famed Nixon-Kennedy debate—said to be pivotal in influencing national opinion in this race that was won by JFK by only the slightest of margins (0.1%). Hylander explained that prior to the debate Nixon had suffered a serious knee injury that kept him hospitalized for ten days. Nixon had checked himself out of the hospital to get back on the campaign trail, but when he stepped out of a car to go into the debate, he bashed his injured knee, causing further injury (and great pain). Nixon’s much-discussed pallor was likely reflective of the pain he felt from this added knee injury. Hylander also offered further details about the debate, describing the makeup applied to Nixon’s face, a new type of gel that melted under the hot lights of the cameras, making it appear that Nixon was sweating bullets. JFK, on the other hand, was able to appear cool and calm, a stunning contrast to the image Nixon conveyed in front of the cameras.
An additional story Hylander shared involved Martin Luther King. King had been arrested for driving an unregistered vehicle and sentenced in a Georgia courtroom to four months of hard labor on a chain gang. Kennedy’s campaign heard of this injustice and intervened, arranging for King to be released for time served. Up till then King’s father, a prominent black preacher in Atlanta, had been a staunch Republican—the party of Lincoln. But after his son was released because of the influence of the Kennedy campaign, the elder King stood in his pulpit and pointed out that when his son had been unjustly imprisoned, the Nixon campaign had done nothing for him, only Kennedy. The elder King announced he was switching his support to Kennedy, which was seen as influencing many black voters to do the same.
Hylander offered numerous other stories that kept the group of 14 at the senior center glued to their seats.
We look forward to when Hylander returns for another visit. When he does, he’s sure to bring more stories that will make events from the past feel relevant to today. History really does repeat itself, and you may find yourself drawing connections between the way things were and how they are now