09/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Paris Hiltons of Elections Past

"This man seeks the highest elective office in the world not primarily as a politician, but as a celebrity. He's the only politician a woman would read about while sitting" in a beauty salon.

The latest silly attack ad from John McCain on Barack Obama as the Paris Hilton of politics? No, it's actually a journalist's comment on John F. Kennedy in 1960.


Ms. Hilton has responded to the McCain smear with a funny video. A more serious response is to point out how similar the charges were against Kennedy in 1960 -- and against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

How about this one: "The Democrats [are] going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, [is] indisputably and willy-nilly going to be seen as a great box-office actor."

That's Norman Mailer writing of JFK in his famous 1960 Esquire essay, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket."

And this: "He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President." Must be McCain on Obama, right? Nope; that one is from a widely circulated pre-election assessment of FDR made by Walter Lippman.

"America's politics would now be also America's favorite movie, America's first soap opera, America's best-seller." A new McCain ad ridiculing Obama? No -- Mailer on Kennedy, again.

In 1960, JFK was compared with Elvis. Along his motorcade routes, Kennedy had "jumpers" -- young women who leaped in the air as his car passed. A few weeks before the election, Kennedy received what journalist Theodore White described as an "orgiastic welcome" from an estimated 1,250,000 people in New York City.

"One would have an inkling at last if the desire of America was for drama or stability, for adventure or monotony," Mailer wrote in 1960, prior to Kennedy's narrow victory over Richard Nixon. If the voters chose Kennedy, he said, "in some part of themselves the people might know that they had chosen one young man for his mystery."

When they ran for president, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were seen as fluff -- celebrities -- but they are now generally seen as the two greatest presidents of the past century.

When will we see a McCain ad linking FDR and JFK with Paris Hilton?

But, of course, McCain and Republicans in general would dispute the ranking of FDR and JFK as the greatest presidents of the twentieth century. No one could have called their "greatest president" an empty-headed celebrity who just gave good speeches and came across well on TV, now could they?


{Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America 2008-07-01-GTJcoversm.jpg. He is currently at work on a book titled Oh, Freedom! - America in the 1960s, which will be published by Norton.}