The Use of Communication by Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to Build Credibility with American Voters

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During their political careers, both presidents Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy faced challenges that undermined their credibility with the American public. Following financial scandal during his campaign for vice president, Richard Nixon lost the trust of many American voters. Further, John F. Kennedy’s lack of foreign policy experience and affiliation with the Catholic Church caused many voters to question his suitability as a presidential candidate. However, both candidates were able to successfully overcome these challenges through focused communications strategies. Both Nixon’s “Checkers Speech” and Kennedy’s television commercials exemplify the use of communication to address and reduce criticisms held by the general public. As an analysis of these two communication events reveals, Nixon and Kennedy both adopted similar strategies to building their credibility with American voters by adopting verbal and visual messages that established their integrity, created the appearance of transparency, appealed to the common values of the voters.

Though Richard Nixon had a distinguished career in the U.S. House of Representatives, news of financial impropriety leading up to the 1952 presidential elections nearly damaged his standing on the Republican ticket as vice presidential candidate to Dwight Eisenhower. During the Republic primaries, allegations emerged that Nixon had improperly spent funds that were given to him by his political supporters (Jamieson 69). While the apparent misconduct threatened to tarnish the Republican ticket, Eisenhower decided that it would be perceived negatively if he forced Nixon to remove himself from the ticket (Jamieson 70). Thus, Nixon was left to determine whether he would resign as candidate for vice president or attempt to circumvent the scandal by restoring the public trust. Deciding to restore his credibility, Nixon delivered an address known as the “Checkers Speech” in order to address the charges of his critics and the concerns of the public. Describing the importance of this speech, Jamieson writes, “On Tuesday, September 23, following Milton Berle, Richard Nixon entered America’s living rooms fighting for his political life” (Jamieson 71). Further Jamieson documents that the speech was viewed “48.9% of the possible television audience” (Jamieson 71). As Jamieson establishes, the messages conveyed during the “Checkers Speech” were crucial in convincing the public of Nixon’s suitability as a vice presidential nominee.

During the preparation and delivery stages of his “Checkers Speech,” Nixon made deliberate considerations that expressed his integrity as a public official. First, Nixon rejected offers from commercial sponsors who offered to pay for the broadcast time for his speech (Jamieson 70). In declining their support, Nixon attempted to prevent the appearance of financial corruption that would be associated with the corporate sponsorship (Jamieson 70). Next, Nixon made references to his humble childhood during the speech in order to convey that he could be trusted with fiscal matters (Jamieson 74). As Jamieson notes, Nixon had already rehearsed his references to his upbringing in previous campaigns and would utilize this effective message throughout his political career (Jamieson 74). Further demonstrating his integrity, Nixon describes the improper use of funds as “morally” wrong in order to demonstrate his adherence to personal ethics (Jamieson 74). By separating himself from the appearance of impropriety by declining corporate sponsorship and appealing to his personal values in his speech, Nixon utilizes his address to establish his integrity as a candidate.

Second, Nixon conveys the appearance of transparency during his address in order to ease the suspicions of his audience. Yet, as Jamieson notes, the conveyance of transparency during the address did not equate to actual transparency. Prior to the television address, Nixon had planned to provide the public with visual aids, outlining the audited statement of his expenditures prepared by an independent auditor (Jamieson 71). However, this plan was canceled because his advisors determined that it would seem superficial (Jamieson 71). Instead, Nixon incorporated symbols in his speech that conveyed the idea of transparency. For example, he claimed that he was “baring his soul” to his audience and engaged in an informal discussion of his expenditures (Jamieson 72). Further, when Nixon made reference to the family dog Checkers and his wife’s mink coat, which he received as gifts (Jamieson 72), Nixon appears to be disclosing the worst extent the alleged impropriety. By appearing to be forthcoming about the gifts that he received, Nixon alleviated suspicions that he may by concealing any improper uses of the funds.

Finally, Nixon’s speech was effective in defending his credibility because he employed verbal messages that linked to the common values of the public. Known for his career rallying against Communism, Nixon already had experience exploiting the anti-Communist sentiments of the public. Expressing the view of Communists held by a segment of the public, Republican National Committee Chairman Arthur E. Summerfield came to Nixon’s defense:

Sen. Nixon has devoted a great part of his life to fighting Communism and exposing traitors. Now a smear of him has been intimated by men who have promoted Communism, supported traitors and never fought so much as one day for their country (Jamieson 71).

Nixon also made the implication that those accusing him of impropriety were unpatriotic during his address by referring to the criticism as “smears” by Communist sympathizers (Jamieson 72). As Jamieson notes, Nixon was able to make this connection because many of the journalists criticizing Nixon were also opponents of his anti-Communist activities when he served in the House of Representatives (Jamieson 72). Thus, Nixon was able to establish this connection to question the patriotism of his detractors.

Further, Nixon adopted the values of the public in his speech by reflecting the financial values of ordinary American citizens. Just as his career prosecuting Communists in the House prepared him to exploit anti-Communist sentiments in his speech, Nixon’s experience connecting to America’s domestic values in the Kitchen Debates enabled him to engage with the values of the general public. While asserting his modest background established his integrity, it also served to reinforce Nixon’s humility. When he discussed his spending, Nixon chose to reveal figures that reflected the spending habits of typical American households. For example, he noted that he had a $41,000 home, that he and his wife had $10,000 in savings placed into government bonds, and that they owed his parents $3,500 (Jamieson 73). By detailing his personal financial activities, Nixon was able to connect to the audience by conveying the values of thrift and fiscal accountability in his address. Thus, Nixon conveyed the message that he embodied the modest values of the general public, which was incompatible with the charges of financial impropriety that he faced. Though Nixon’s televised address was simple in delivery, he managed to deliver a multifaceted message that conveyed his integrity to the American public and enabled him to remain on the presidential ticket for the 1952 elections.

As a young Senator and a Roman Catholic politician, John F. Kennedy faced significant challenges in establishing the support of American voters during the 1960 presidential elections. In fact, the 1960 presidential debates revealed that John F. Kennedy faced challenges to his credibility that were opposite the challenges faced by President Nixon. While Nixon referenced his modest background in his previous speeches, Kennedy held the liability of coming from a wealthy family (Jamieson 122). While Nixon was less personable, Kennedy was highly charismatic (Jamieson 122). Yet, as Jamieson notes, prior to 1960, the image that Americans held of the president included the descriptors “tall, middle-aged, heterosexual, Caucasian, Protestant, and male” (Jamieson 122). Kennedy was tasked with adopting a communications strategy utilizing television advertisements for rhetoric and politics that enabled him to bypass those limitations.

First, Kennedy was able to reduce his perceived shortcomings as a presidential candidate by conveying messages through speech that established his integrity as a candidate. Countering the belief that he was too young to run for president, Kennedy cited his experience as a Naval Officer during World War II (Jamieson 140). Kennedy’s military experience conveyed that he possessed maturity that compensated for his young age. Further, Kennedy’s aid Theodore Sorenson appealed to Kennedy’s integrity to distinguish Kennedy from failed Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith. As Sorenson commented in interviews, a primary reason that Smith was unsuited for the presidency was not because of his religion, but because of his association with the corrupt Tammany Hall machine politics (Jamieson 124). Further, Kennedy demonstrated his personal integrity by refusing to separate himself from his religion in order to gain political support. Ultimately, necessity informed Kennedy’s decision to publically stand behind his religion. It was expected that the Catholic vote would be a deciding factor in the 1960 presidential elections (Jamieson 126). However, Kennedy communicated his decision to support his faith in a manner that aligned with his personal integrity. The candidate established his belief in “fair play and consistency” and expressed that he desired to lose on the issues rather than his religion (Jamieson 132). Kennedy’s commitment to his religion communicated his willingness to stand up for higher principles rather than accommodate the politically expedient.

Next, Kennedy addressed his critics by releasing television ads that conveyed transparency on matters of religion. During the 1960 election, opponents of Kennedy purchased advertisements that claimed that the president would follow the demands of the Roman Catholic Church when making decisions as president (Jamieson 128). Thus, it was necessary for Kennedy to assure the public that the Church would have no formal influences on his decisions as president. In a television ad that was delivered in the format of a question and answer session, Kennedy established that he would not allow Church officials to dictate the decisions that he made as president (Jamieson 126). Because these commercials involved an interactive question and answer session with voters, Kennedy communicated a willingness to directly address the implications of his religion with the general public. Choosing to address the criticisms that his religious affiliation received, Kennedy was able to preemptively address the concerns of the voting public.

Finally, Kennedy was able to transform the liabilities inherent in his age and religion into assets through an appeal to public values. In countering the criticism that he was too young to serve as president, Kennedy highlighted other young leaders in world history, including Theodore Roosevelt, William Pitt, and Alexander the Great (Jamieson 140). Further, he established youth as a positive value by referring to the “New Frontier” in his nomination speech at the 1960 Democratic Convention (Jamieson 124). Kennedy also asserted that while the world’s leaders were older, they were ineffective in solving many of the world’s challenges (Jamieson 140). Thus, he conveyed that his president presented an alteration of ineffectual policies that dominated previous administrations. By equating his candidate to a new generation of leadership, Kennedy reflected the pioneering spirit that characterizes American society.

Further, Kennedy transformed his religion into a strength by establishing a new set of values for American society that emphasized tolerance. As Sorenson noted in an interview, America in the 1960s was more urbanized, educated, sophisticated, and tolerant than it had been in the past (Jamieson 122). Thus, Kennedy advertisements on his Senate victories conveyed the message that voting for Kennedy was a sign of “open-mindedness” and tolerance (Jamieson 125). Additionally, Kennedy expressed a commitment to the principles of equal opportunity and freedom of religion in his rhetoric (Jamieson 126). In order to agitate Catholic voters, the Kennedy campaign launched half-hour commercials responding to anti-Catholic charges in swing states that were heavily influenced by Catholic voters (Jamieson 134). Thus, Kennedy was able to motivate his supporters and vilify his critics by evoking the values of fairness and tolerance.

Though Nixon and Kennedy are often viewed as dissimilar in their approaches to communication, both presidents adopted similar strategies to manage crises in their political career. When issues of credibility undermined the trust that the public placed in both candidates, they adopted a threefold communication strategy that overcome the reservations of the public by focusing on the integrity, transparency, and common values of the voters. Analyses of Nixon’s “Checkers Speech” and Kennedy’s television commercials reveals that these focused appeals were successful in circumventing the public objections faced by both political leaders.

Work Cited

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Packaging the presidency: a history and criticism of presidential campaign advertising. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996. Print.