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Superman Comes to the Supermarket

An inside look into John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for America

The Kennedys take a triumphant ride down New York City’s “Canyon of Heroes” in a ticker-tape parade in their honor. October 19, 1960.
Photo: Cornell Capa
The Kennedys take a triumphant ride down New York City’s “Canyon of Heroes” in a ticker-tape parade in their honor. October 19, 1960.
Photo: Cornell Capa
July 11, 1960. JFK’s assets were varied and many, but of utmost importance were the Kennedy women, beginning with Jackie and extending through matriarch, Rose, the sisters — Eunice (left), Jean, and Pat — and the sisters-in-law — Joan and Ethel (center and right). All worked hard for the cause, whether in genteel afternoon teas or outon- the-hustings campaigning.
Photo: Jacques Lowe
July 11, 1960. JFK’s assets were varied and many, but of utmost importance were the Kennedy women, beginning with Jackie and extending through matriarch, Rose, the sisters — Eunice (left), Jean, and Pat — and the sisters-in-law — Joan and Ethel (center and right). All worked hard for the cause, whether in genteel afternoon teas or outon- the-hustings campaigning.
Photo: Jacques Lowe
By Norman Mailer

[No one had too much doubt that Kennedy would be nominated, but if elected he would be not only the youngest President ever to be chosen by voters, he would be the most conventionally attractive young man ever to sit in the White House, and his wife — some would claim it — might be the most beautiful first lady in our history. Of necessity the myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now be also America’s favorite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s bestseller. One thinks of the talents of writers like Taylor Caldwell or Frank Yerby, or is it rather The Fountainhead which would contain such a fleshing of the romantic prescription? Or is it indeed one’s own work which is called into question? “Well, there’s your first hipster,” says a writer one knows at the convention, “Sergius O’Shaugnessy born rich,” and the temptation is to nod, for it could be true, a war hero, and the heroism is bona fide, even exceptional, a man who has lived with death, who, crippled in the back, took on a n operation which would kill him or restore him to power, who chose to marry a lady whose face might be too imaginative for the taste of a democracy which likes its first ladies to be executives of home-management, a man who courts political suicide by choosing to go all out for a nomination four, eight, or twelve years before his political elders think he is ready, a man who announces a week prior to the convention that the young are better fitted to direct history than the old. Yes, it captures the attention. This is no routine candidate calling every shot by safety’s routine book (“Yes,” Nixon said, naturally but terribly tired an hour after his nomination, the TV cameras and lights and microphones bringing out a sweat of fatigue on his face, the words coming very slowly from the tired brain, somber, modest, sober, slow, slow enough so that one could touch emphatically the cautions behind each word, “Yes, I want to say,” said Nixon, “that whatever abilities I have, I got from my mother.” A tired pause …dull moment of warning, “…and my father.” The connection now made, the rest comes easy, “…and my school and my church.” Such men are capable of anything.)

One had the opportunity to study Kennedy a bit in the days that followed. His style in the press conferences was interesting. Not terribly popular with the reporters (too much a contemporary, and yet too difficult to understand, he received nothing like the rounds of applause given to Eleanor Roosevelt, Stevenson, Humphrey, or even Johnson), he carried himself nonetheless with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round. There was a good lithe wit to his responses, a dry Harvard wit, a keen sense of proportion in disposing of difficult questions — invariably he gave enough of an answer to be formally satisfactory without ever opening himself to a new question which might go further than the first.

Asked by a reporter, “Are you for Adlai as vice-president?” the grin came forth and the voice turned very dry, “No, I cannot say we have considered Adlai as a vice-president.” Yet there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind. Johnson gave you all of himself, he was a political animal, he breathed like an animal, sweated like one, you knew his mind was entirely absorbed with the compendium of political fact and maneuver; Kennedy seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom, but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing. Perhaps one can give a sense of the discrepancy by saying that he was like an actor who had been cast as the candidate, a good actor, but not a great one — you were aware all the time that the role was one thing and the man another — they did not coincide, the actor seemed a touch too aloof (as, let us say, Gregory Peck is usually too aloof ) to become the part. Yet one had little sense of whether to value this elusiveness, or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself. And his voice gave no clue. When Johnson spoke, one could separate what was fraudulent from what was felt, he would have been satisfying as an actor the way Broderick Crawford or Paul Douglas are satisfying; one saw into his emotions, or at least had the illusion that one did. Kennedy’s voice, however, was only a fair voice, too reedy, near to strident, it had the metallic snap of a cricket in it somewhere, it was more impersonal than the man, and so became the least-impressive quality in a face, a body, a selection of language, and a style of movement which made up a better-thandecent presentation, better than one had expected. […]

His personal quality had a subtle, not quite describable intensity, a suggestion of dry pent heat perhaps, his eyes large, the pupils grey, the whites prominent, almost shocking, his most forceful feature: he had the eyes of a mountaineer. His appearance changed with his mood, strikingly so, and this made him always more interesting than what he was saying. He would seem at one moment older than his age, forty-eight or fifty, a tall, slim, sunburned professor with a pleasant weathered face, not even particularly handsome; five minutes later, talking to a press conference on his lawn, three microphones before him, a television camera turning, his appearance would have gone through a metamorphosis, he would look again like a movie star, his coloring vivid, his manner rich, his gestures strong and quick, alive with that concentration of vitality a successful actor always seems to radiate. Kennedy had a dozen faces.

Although they were not at all similar as people, the quality was reminiscent of someone like Brando whose expression rarely changes, but whose appearances seems to shift from one person into another as the minutes go by, and one bothers with this comparison because, like Brando, Kennedy’s most characteristic quality is the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others. […]

Talking to a man who had been with Kennedy in Hyannis Port the week before the convention, I heard that he was in a state of deep fatigue.

“Well, he didn’t look tired at the convention,” one commented.

“Oh, he had three days of rest. Three days of rest for him is like six months for us.” One thinks of that three-mile swim with the belt in his mouth and McMahon holding it behind him. There are pestilences which sit in the mouth and rot the teeth — in those five hours how much of the psyche must have been remade, for to give vent to the bite in one’s jaws and yet use that rage to save a life: it is not so very many men who have the apocalyptic sense that heroism is the First Doctor.

If one had a profound criticism of Kennedy it was that his public mind was too conventional, but that seemed to matter less thanthe fact of such a man in office because the law of political life had become so dreary that only a conventional mind could win an election. Indeed there could be no politics which gave warmth to one’s body until the country had recovered its imagination, its pioneer lust for the unexpected and incalculable. It was the changes that might come afterward on which one could put one’s hope. With such a man in office the myth of the nation would again be engaged, and the fact that he was Catholic would shiver a first existential vibration of consciousness into the mind of the White Protestant. For the first time in our history, the Protestant would have the pain and creative luxury of feeling himself in some tiny degree part of a minority, and that was an experience which might be incommensurable in its value to the best of them.