Using election campaigns for studying the power of language
It’s 1960. Personal computers don’t exist. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, by Harper Lee wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts is about to become the youngest elected president in US history.’
– A self-guided tour for high school students (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
The juxtaposition of Harper Lee’s name with Kennedy’s jarred me. I couldn’t walk the halls and just absorb the glamourous lives of the 35th president and his wife. This library and museum was going to a revelation for me.
John F. Kennedy’s campaign trail was the first to use Television and the Media in an election run. On the grainy black and white of the small screens of an estimated 70 million Americans, the power of visual and spoken language was used to win the battle for first world power. The students and I enter the debate studio, the living monument to the televised debate on September 26, 1960. My students are urged to imagine if hashtags existed what might the Kennedy or Nixon campaigns have used? This experience struck me as the intersection of investigations in language in a cultural context and mass communication.
Election campaigns merge media and oral language into a rich study. Individual political speeches or protest movements are isolated out of context. Kennedy sought permission for Ernest Hemmingway’s widow to re-enter Cuba to claim back his manuscripts. He privileged literature and we should offer more opportunity to appreciate the language of elections.