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Nixon, JFK bring 1960 political spotlight to Lehigh Valley

Published On: Sep 23 2011 05:37:41 PM EDT

Fifty-one years ago, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy went head-to-head in the first ever televised presidential debate.

By the standards of what would come later, the 1960s started as a relatively tranquil time in American politics.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the World War II hero/general, was taking a world tour before leaving office. The country was generally peaceful and prosperous and despite the civil rights struggle in the South and challenges by the Soviet Union, the future of what the press had already nicknamed “the Soaring 60s” looked bright.

It was into this environment that two political candidates, for the first time since 1928 neither an incumbent president, were running for the White House. One was a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, a bright young man named John F. Kennedy whose constant promise on the campaign trail was to “get this country moving again.” The other Richard M. Nixon, then vice-president, was an experienced seasoned politician from California, with established name recognition.


By the time they both arrived in the Lehigh Valley in October of 1960 the nation had seen a lot of them. Through a series of televised political debates, they had come into American homes in a way that no candidates ever had before.

Candidate Richard Nixon at Muhlenberg College in Allentown Nixon was the first to arrive. On Sunday, October 22 he came into the Lehigh Valley and Allentown to give a speech at Muhlenberg College’s Memorial Hall. Allentown police estimated the crowd that lined the streets and those who turned out to hear him at 100,000.  The Morning Call recorded the reaction to Nixon as “an emotional tornado.” In Allentown, Republicans had a slight advantage in registration, and Nixon’s conservative brand of politics and strong anti-communist position going back to the early 1950s, made him very popular in the city.

But if in many ways Nixon appealed to the Lehigh Valley’s naturally conservative political bent, Kennedy was the fresh excitement. The good-looking young man with the beautiful wife and young family was made for the media era of the day with its glossy picture magazines, like Life and Look.

An almost Hollywood glamour seemed to travel with them. Even those who disliked Kennedy’s politics, distrusted his Roman Catholic religion, and feared his rich father Joseph P. Kennedy’s influence--and that included Democrats like Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who quipped it was the power of the Pop and not the power of the Pope that worried him--could not deny it.

Then-Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy at Moravian College. Courtesy: Moravian College The race was neck and neck on October 28, the date of Kennedy’s campaign stop in the Lehigh Valley. All day local Democrats had been getting ready and announcements were placed in the local newspapers. But as things sometimes do in political campaigns, the Kennedy campaign was running behind schedule.

It was 1:00 am on October 28, when a crowd, estimated at 15,000, were on hand as Kennedy’s campaign plane, named the Caroline after his daughter touched down at A-B-E airport. Kennedy did not speak at that point but eagerly went into the crowd to shake hands. Newspaper photographers caught his broad smile as his supporters, many wearing plastic-straw hats with his name on them and carrying campaign poster signs of support reached out to greet the candidate. Shortly thereafter Kennedy was shown to a waiting car for a night at the Hotel Bethlehem to sleep before the hard day of campaigning that was ahead.

At 9:00 the next morning over orange juice, eggs and bacon, a capacity crowd, made up largely of local Democratic Party loyalists and politicians, gathered for a campaign breakfast in the Hotel Bethlehem’s ballroom. Kennedy arrived to cheers. “Whether it is 2 o’clock in the morning or 8 o’ clock in the morning seems to make no difference to Democrats,” he said. “It is this spirit that will bring us victory on November 8.”

Crowds gather at Moravian College for a rally for then-Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy.  Courtesy: Moravian College When the breakfast was done Kennedy headed off to Moravian College’s Johnston Hall. Facing an overflow crowd he talked on a standard campaign theme, the new decade of the 1960s, a time of great promise that should not be one handed over to the tired leaders of the 1950s. America he said needed “new leadership.”

The featured event of the day was a rally held in Allentown’s Center Square. When his speech was done at Moravian College, Kennedy got into a car for his ride to Allentown. As it snaked through the crowded streets, the press noted how Kennedy drew supporters toward him. What Evening Chronicle reporter Ralph Rosenberger called Kennedy’s “compelling magnetism” was on display, “which at times caused his supporters to flout safety in dashing through the police-guided convoy in an attempt to grasp his hand.”   Perhaps not since Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign, when the local press recorded a similar reaction from the normally reserved local crowds had the Lehigh Valley seen anything quite like it.

The candidate’s arrival in Center Square was greeted with “We Want Kennedy,” repeated over and over almost drowning out the band music that was playing. Confetti was dropped from the rooftops. In the crush of the crowd, estimated at 85,000, a woman fainted.

Kennedy then mounted a platform at the southwest corner of Center Square. Looking out over the crowd, he spoke once again of America’s role as the world’s leader, and why it needed to be represented by a new generation. “If we present an uncertain image, if we don’t know where we are going, our prestige will continue to go down.”

When the speech was over Kennedy left the platform, shook hands and headed to the next stop, Pottsville.

In the 1960 election Kennedy failed to carry Lehigh County or Allentown, Nixon getting 58% of the vote.

In the fall of 1962  President Kennedy planned to return to the Lehigh Valley to campaign for local candidates for Congress, but canceled claiming illness. But the illness was not real; he had just been shown photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba.