The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same


by Kelly Francis, Assistant Digital Archivist for Textual Collections

The economy. Unemployment. Religion. Civil rights. Health care. These were the principal issues of the 2012 presidential election. Surprisingly, they were also the major issues of the 1960 election.

Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential Campaign Files were cataloged concurrently with the 2012 presidential campaign. As I described Senator John F. Kennedy’s speeches from his 1960 campaign I couldn’t help but notice numerous parallels to the 2012 campaign, despite a separation of half a century.


The Economy and Unemployment

The economic concerns of 1960 haven’t changed much over the decades. Americans are still concerned about unemployment levels, the deficit, increasing the debt limit, and the rate of economic growth. In a speech given to the Associated Business Publications conference on October 12, 1960 Senator Kennedy remarks that the U.S. went through two recessions since 1952 and that, “During a recession, as unemployment rises, profits decline, and farmers and small business men suffer especially, the growth of the gross national product slows to a halt, and public revenues shrink.” Sound familiar?

Since 2001 the United States and countries around the world experienced two recessions with rising unemployment numbers, decreased gross domestic product, and a reduction in public revenues. The biggest issues in the 2012 election were the economy and unemployment levels, just as in 1960.



Page one of a Democratic National Committee press release, 12 October 1960. View the entire folder here.



In 1960 Senator John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a major issue of the campaign. A Roman Catholic had never been elected President and many Americans believed that because of his religious faith he would be obligated to take orders from the Pope. In response, Senator Kennedy gave a speech to a group of Protestant ministers at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in Houston, Texas where he clarified, “…I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters–and the church does not speak for me.”

In the 2012 election Mitt Romney had the opportunity to become the first Mormon elected President of the United States. Although his religion was not a point of concern for many Americans it would have been a religious milestone had he won the election, as it was for President Kennedy.




Page from address at the Houston Ministerial Association, 12 September 1960. View entire folder here.


Civil Rights

The 1960s is one of the most important decades in American history, with civil rights playing a large role. It’s hard to imagine in 2012 not being able to eat or sit where you want, being required to pass a literacy test before you can vote, or not getting housing due to the color of your skin. Unfortunately, these inequities were all too common during the 1960s. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before laws were passed to outlaw all discrimination against race, religion, and gender, and it wasn’t until 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional.

Regardless of the anti-discrimination legislation passed in the 1960s, inequality still exists in 2012. The rights of the LGBT community, particularly concerning same-sex marriage, have become a major issue in political campaigns. Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in nine states, 30 states passed constitutional bans on gay marriage and in 1996 the Federal government passed the Defense of Marriage Act, legally preventing the government from recognizing same-sex unions. However, a popular vote in the 2012 election legalized marriage equality in three more states.




Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s record on civil rights, undated. View entire folder here.



Page from a speech on health care, 1 April 1960. View entire folder here. 


No matter how far we feel we have progressed as a society, we only need to go back a short time in history to see that things really aren’t all that different than they were 50 years ago. The campaign issues discussed above are only a few addressed by Senator Kennedy during the campaign. Explore for yourself in the 1960 Presidential Campaign Files, now fully available in our digital archives, here.


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