In the presidential election campaign of 1960, John F. Kennedy promised to move the nation into “the New Frontier.” After narrowly winning the election, Kennedy succeeded in getting only part of his agenda enacted.

The Election of 1960

 How did the election of 1960 change the way candidates ran their campaigns?

On September 26, 1960, at 9:30 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, an estimated 75 million people sat indoors and focused on their television sets. They were watching the first televised presidential debate. The debate marked a new era of television politics.

During the 1960 presidential race, both parties made substantial use of television. The Democrats spent more than $6 million on television and radio spots, while the Republicans spent more than $7.5 million. Television news commentator Eric Sevareid complained that the candidates had become “packaged products.” He declared that the “Processed Politician has finally arrived.”

The candidates differed in many ways. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee and a senator, was a Catholic from a wealthy Massachusetts family. Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee and current vice president, was a Quaker from California. He had grown up in a family that struggled financially. Kennedy seemed outgoing and relaxed. Nixon struck many as formal and stiff.

Although the candidates presented different styles, they differed little on key issues. Both promised to boost the economy, and both portrayed themselves as “Cold Warriors,” determined to stop the forces of communism. Kennedy expressed concern about a suspected “missile gap,” claiming the United States lagged behind the Soviets in weaponry. Nixon warned that the Democrats’ fiscal policies would boost inflation and that only he had the foreign policy experience needed for the nation.

Kennedy’s Catholic faith became an issue, just as Al Smith’s Catholicism had in 1928. The United States had never had a Catholic president, and many Protestants had concerns about Kennedy. Kennedy decided to confront this issue openly in a speech: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

The series of four televised debates influenced the election’s close outcome. Kennedy won the popular vote by 118,574 out of 68 million votes cast, and the Electoral College by 303 votes to 219. Despite his narrow victory, Kennedy captured the imagination of the American public as few presidents had before him. During the campaign, many had been taken with Kennedy’s youth and optimism. His Inaugural Address reinforced this impression. In the speech, Kennedy declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation” and called on citizens to take a more active role in making the nation better. “My fellow Americans,” he exclaimed, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy Takes Office


What were some domestic policies initiated when Kennedy took office?

Upon entering office, President Kennedy set out to implement a legislative agenda that became known as the New Frontier. He hoped to increase aid to education, provide health insurance to the elderly, and create a Department of Urban Affairs. He would soon find that passing such legislation was no easy task on Capitol Hill. Although the Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress, Kennedy was unable to push through many of his programs. His narrow victory had not helped many Democrats get elected. Those who did win, therefore, felt that they owed him nothing. In addition, Southern Democrats—a large part of the Democrats in Congress— saw Kennedy’s program as too expensive and, together with Republicans, were able to defeat many of Kennedy’s proposals.

Successes and Setbacks

President Kennedy achieved some victories, particularly in improving the economy. Although the economy had soared through much of the 1950s, it had slowed by the end of the decade. To increase economic growth and create jobs, Kennedy advocated deficit spending and investing more funds in defense and space exploration. Such spending did indeed create jobs and stimulate economic growth.

Kennedy also asked businesses to hold down prices and labor leaders to hold down pay increases. The labor unions in the steel industry agreed to reduce their demands for higher wages, but several steel companies raised prices sharply. Kennedy responded by threatening to have the Department of Defense buy cheaper foreign steel. He asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the steel industry was fixing prices. The steel companies backed down and cut their prices, but the victory caused strained relations with the business community.

In addition, the president pushed for tax cuts. When opponents argued that a tax cut would help only the wealthy, Kennedy asserted that lower taxes meant businesses would have more money to expand. This, in turn, would create new jobs and benefit everybody. However, Congress refused to pass the tax cut because of fears that it would cause inflation. Congress also blocked his plans for health insurance for senior citizens and federal aid to education. Congress did agree to Kennedy’s request to raise the minimum wage, his proposal for the Area Redevelopment Act, and the Housing Act. These acts helped create jobs and build low-income housing in poor areas.

Expanding Women’s Rights

In 1961 Kennedy created the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. The commission called for federal action against gender discrimination and affirmed the right of women to equally paid employment. The commission proposed the Equal Pay Act, which Kennedy signed in 1963. Kennedy never appointed a woman to his cabinet. A number of women, however, worked in other prominent positions in the administration, including Esther Peterson, assistant secretary of labor and director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor.

A New Focus on the Disabled

In 1961 Kennedy convened the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation. The panel’s first report called for funding of research into developmental disabilities and educational and vocational programs for people with developmental disabilities. It also called for a greater reliance on residential, rather than institutional, treatment centers.

Responding to the report, Congress enacted the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963. This legislation provided grants to build research centers and grants to states to construct mental health centers. It also provided funds to train educational personnel to work with people with developmental disabilities.

In 1962 Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the president’s sister, began a day camp at her home for children with developmental disabilities. Camp Shriver, as it was first known, offered people with disabilities a chance to be physically competitive. That effort later grew into the Special Olympics program. The first Special Olympics Games were held in Chicago in 1968.

Warren Court Reforms


How important are some of the Warren Court rulings for today’s society?

In 1953 Earl Warren, governor of California, became chief justice of the United States. Under Warren’s leadership, the Supreme Court issued several rulings that dramatically reshaped American politics and society.

“One Person, One Vote”

Some of the Court’s more notable decisions concerned reapportionment. By 1960, more Americans resided in urban than in rural areas, but many states’ electoral districts did not reflect this shift. In Tennessee, for example, a rural county with only 2,340 voters had one state representative, while an urban county with 133 times more voters had only seven. Thus, rural voters had far more political influence than urban ones. Some Tennessee voters took the matter to court, and their case, Baker v. Carr (1962), went to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that federal courts had jurisdiction to hear lawsuits seeking to force states to redraw electoral districts. In Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Court ruled that states must reapportion electoral districts along the principle of “one person, one vote,” so that all citizens’ votes would have equal weight, rather than giving arbitrary power to rural voters. The decision shifted political power from rural and often conservative areas to urban areas, where more liberal voters lived. It also boosted the political power of African Americans and Hispanics, who typically lived in cities.

Extending Due Process

The Supreme Court began to use the Fourteenth Amendment to extend the Bill of Rights to the states. Originally, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government. Many states had their own bills of rights, but some federal rights did not exist at the state level. The Fourteenth Amendment states that “no state shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Due process means that the law may not treat individuals unfairly, arbitrarily, or unreasonably.

The Court ruled in several cases that due process meant applying the federal Bill of Rights to the states. In 1961 the Supreme Court ruled in Mapp v. Ohio that state courts could not consider evidence obtained in violation of the U.S. Constitution. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Court ruled that a defendant in a state court had the right to a lawyer, regardless of his or her ability to pay. In Escobedo v. Illinois (1964), the Court ruled that suspects must be allowed access to a lawyer and informed of their right to remain silent before being questioned. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) went further, requiring authorities to inform suspects of their right to remain silent; that anything they say can and will be used against them in court; and that they have a right to a lawyer. These warnings are known as Miranda rights.

Prayer and Privacy

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed the separation of church and state. The Court applied the First Amendment to the states in Engel v. Vitale (1962), ruling that states could not compose official prayers and require those prayers to be recited in public schools. In Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), it ruled against state-mandated Bible readings in public schools. The Court ruled in Griswold v.Connecticut (1965) that prohibiting the sale and use of birth control devices violated citizens’ constitutional right to privacy. As with most rulings of the Warren Court, some people supported these decisions and others did not. What most people did agree upon, however, was the Court’s pivotal role in shaping national policy. These decisions continue to shape the way Americans act and behave today.

Thinking Like a HISTORIAN
Determining Cause and Effect
When the Kennedy administration created the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, its stated goal was to examine employment policies for women. The reasons for the formation of the commission, however, were not as clear. At the time, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was considered politically dangerous and opposed by some labor leaders. The ERA was stuck in Congress because some thought it was too extreme a step in women’s rights. Some believe Kennedy created the commission to address the status of women, appeal to women voters, and avoid the politically sensitive issue of the ERA. Others believe it was created to pay a political debt to Women’s Bureau leader Esther Peterson, a supporter of Kennedy. 

Reviewing Vocabulary

TEKS: 21A, 21C


Using Your Notes


Answering the Guiding Questions


TEKS: 21A, 21C


Writing Activity

TEKS: 21A, 21C, 23A