JFK Plus 50 Years: Media Era

Without the media, there would have been no “Camelot.”

If the media and the news cycle were then what it is today, there would have been no honeymoon either.

Meandering through Washington’s Newseum today, through three floors of iconic photographs of the first president born in the 20th Century, his glamorous younger wife and his cherubic children, it was as clear as the contact prints of the late Jacques Lowe’s negatives that the image of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was made, preserved and protected by a modern medium of television and cocktail table magazines. He was the Life and Look president.

Just as the first televised debate between Kennedy and Republican rival Richard Nixon separated the telegenic one from the permanent five o’clock shadow — a face-off recorded in Lowe’s pictures — Kennedy’s command of the televised presidential news conference, the first conducted on live TV, put him in control of his own public image.

He was the first to employ a White House photographer — not Lowe, the one commissioned by his wealthy father during the campaign days, but rather Cecil Stoughton — and he put the official portrait artist to good use when his privacy-loving wife was away, with Stoughton snapping pictures of the children that would affix the family in the public’s pantheon. The president summoned Alan Stanley Tretrick to take the one of his son peering from beneath The Resolute Desk in the Oval Office while mom was away. It was snapped a month before the president’s death.

It was the widow of the young president assassinated 50 years ago, on this coming Nov. 22,   who advised the media that they had witnessed a Camelot in passing and cemented the logo of the JFK experience for generations to come.

When the 43-year-old president took office on Jan 20, 1961, “photography had little to do with defining the image of a presidency. But that changed when pictures of John and Jacqueline Kennedy and their children, Caroline and John-John, demystified the public and personal life of a U.S. first family,” the National Geographic’s Bijal Trevedi writes. “Cecil Stoughton helped shape this era… Many of his behind-the-scenes pictures have since taken on iconic status, having graced millions of newspapers and hundreds of books.”

“Stoughton’s unusual access to John F. Kennedy’s private life expanded the public’s view of the presidency. The pictures were pivotal in projecting the image of a youthful, dynamic President ushering in a new era in U.S. history.”

Stoughton was an Army photographer whose boss became the military aide to the president. “The advantage of an in-house photographer was that they could control me —if I did something wrong I would end up in Guam the next day!” he told the Geographic.

Lowe’s 40,000-frame collection of the Kennedys was lost in the collapse of New York City’s World Trade Center towers months after the photographer died, and it is the technology of modern computer scanning that presents the published ones in larger-than-life fashion at the Newseum today.

Recorded on Kodachrome, which too has passed, the magazine covers of the day still sparkle. Yet the memories of that era seem as black and white as the table-top RCA Victor television on which this writer, 10 years old on that day, watched Walter Cronkite report that the assassinated president had died in Dallas. CBS News, in the day of the three-network broadcast industry, had televised the history-shaping 1960 debate and was there to lay Kennedy to rest in 1963.

The independent media wasn’t all that independent, it turned out, when it came to the Camelot president — even the First Amendment-enshrining Newseum’s video account of Kennedy’s presidency makes only a passing reference to his “philandering,” which the reporters then closest to him concealed.

Yet it was both the hired photographers and the working press in an era when newspapers and large-format magazines were flourishing and television was coming into its own who made the tragically foreshortened memories of this brief presidency something as permanently etched in the American mind as the newsreel footage and the late Stan Stearns’ photo of the president’s young son saluting his father’s funeral caisson.

Stan Stearns (1935-2012) took this picture for UPI.


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