Have you heard about the Eisenhower doll? You wind it up and it doesn’t do anything.
That was the joke that was going around. Eisenhower was a relic of World War II. His careful, caretaker style didn’t fit the brash new America that was emerging.
We had Elvis, and rock and roll. We had Beatniks. We had discovered sex, something our parents knew nothing about. A new generation was taking over, and we were tired of the complacency and conformity of our parents’ generation.
Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, was running to succeed him.
They called him Tricky Dick. I don’t know what exactly, but there was something unpleasant about him. He just didn’t look like someone I’d want to be president.
The Democrats had a fresh new face, John F. Kennedy.
He was young and dashing and handsome and bold, and he seemed to be part of the future, not the past. And that Boston accent! He sounded so cultured and smart.
Things just seemed to be going wrong for America. With Sputnik, the Russians had beaten us into space.
Fidel Castro, an avowed Communist, had just taken over Cuba, only 90 miles from our shores.
Our U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Russia.
Communism was on the march, and we were looking weak.
It was clear we needed new leadership. My friends and I were all for Kennedy.
Dad wasn’t so sure. He knew what he had in Nixon, and like all World War II veterans, he worshipped Eisenhower. Nixon had lots of government experience, and Kennedy had served a little more than one term in the Senate.
And he was a Catholic.
Who would be making decisions in the White House, Kennedy or the Pope?
Then came the first ever televised presidential debate. I couldn’t really follow it. I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about when it came to the economy or foreign policy. I got totally lost at Quemoy and Matsu.
I didn’t know what they were, but I just liked they way Kennedy said the words.
Nixon looked pale and weak.
We didn’t know then that he had just been in the hospital recovering from a serious infection. He started sweating under the hot lights, and the makeup he was wearing began to melt, revealing a sinister 5 O’clock shadow.
Kennedy, on the other hand, looked fresh and strong and vigorous.
After that first debate, I was certain. It had to be Kennedy.
Dad asked me why. Exactly which policies of Kennedy’s did I agree with?
“Too bad you have to wait a few years. You‘re already as well-informed as most voters.”