Click here for: The Kennedy Presidential Library And Museum
Excerpt from Ice Cream Camelot by BJ Neblett © 2013
By 1960 it was becoming increasingly evident that the order of the day would be change. No matter how desperately Americans longed to cling to the peace and sameness of the past decade, the world was in flux. The Russians were in space, Castro was in Cuba, and civil rights and integration were quickly becoming the catch words of a new era. In addition, another war lurked just around the next corner. Even my life had taken some drastic and unexpected changes. My beloved aunt had passed on, the family had moved to the suburbs, and I was spending less and less time running the streets of South Philly. I never saw Dominick again. A generation of backyard barbecues and bomb shelters had been born out of old fears and new threats, both real and imagined. This new, younger generation was ready for a change in the guard, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was their choice, describing himself as a man “born in this century,” keen to explore “the New Frontier.”
With the limited understanding of my age, I followed the 1960 campaigns, proudly displaying a Kennedy/Johnson button on my school jacket, much to my conservative Republican father’s dismay. Try as I may I didn’t fully understand the mechanics and methods of the political scene, including the newly popular catch phrase “racial equality.” Here ten-year-old reason faltered.
Growing up in ethnically diverse and divided South Philadelphia, I witnessed firsthand the real and imagined boundaries that separated Italians from Irish, Germans from Polish, the poor from the wealthy, and black from white. Through mute acceptance, my parents and teachers alike instilled in me the belief that this division was normal. My background people were neatly and logically ordered. Thanks to TV news, I also witnessed the heart rending, often violent struggles for racial equality, especially in the South. The simplistic logic that all men were created equal seemed to me a no-brainer. We were taught it in school, preached it in church, and lectured on it in the news. And yet the girls sat behind the boys; wives were subservient to their husbands; and blacks lived separate from whites. I had always been taught to treat everyone with equal respect. But it never occurred to my young mind that everyone I came into contact with was of the same race. I sympathized with the struggles of black Americans and witnessed the inequality of my own existence, never once equating the two.
What I did understand was that young Americans all across the country were drawn in by the Kennedy charm and magnetism. The rhetoric was too loud, the momentum too strong, and the bandwagon too exciting to resist.
Following the conventions, the fall campaigns kicked into high gear. This time my Twilight Zone and Ozzie and Harriet and Untouchables were preempted by terse political updates and tense political debates. All the while the country grew more divided: the segregationists vs. the integrationists; the established vs. the new order; the right vs. the left; the young vs. the old. Lines were tightly drawn and Election Day found the dissimilar pair in a dead heat.
Tuesday, November 8, 1960, brought confusing and conflicting news feeds:
“Uncertain Election Results Favor Kennedy”
“Fighting Erupts in South Vietnam”
In Hyannis Port, Mass., Sen. John F. Kennedy watched his early lead over Vice President Nixon narrow as the evening progressed and refused to claim victory before Nixon conceded defeat.
Nixon watched the returns come in at his suite in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and later “virtually concedes,” according to a report written to appear the next day.
In California, with 32 electoral votes, Kennedy maintained a lead over Nixon. Nixon, however, remained confident of winning his home state once absentee ballots were counted.
In Illinois, Kennedy maintained a slim lead.
Despite the uncertain returns, New York Times reporter James Reston prepared a story for tomorrow's edition of his paper saying it appeared Kennedy had won election.
Another story prepared for the next day’s paper said, “... in the final hours of Election Day we do not collectively know what we have decided.”
The agonizing election night dragged on into the next day without a clear winner. Finally, 43-year-old Kennedy was declared the victor in one of the closest presidential elections of the 20th century. Kennedy managed to carry the popular vote over Nixon by just two-tenths of one percent. In the Electoral College he won 303 votes to his opponent’s 219. And in a portentous sign of troubled times to come, fourteen electors from Mississippi and Alabama refused to support Kennedy because of his support for the civil rights movement.
Friday, January 20, 1961, I sat in my desk at St. Pius X Grade School, watching with the rest of my class as Kennedy was inaugurated the thirty-fifth president of the United States. During his acceptance speech, the compelling leader boldly stated that we were “on the edge of a new frontier,” letting “the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”
Feeling a part of that new generation, I had unwittingly found an idol and hero.