5 Questions with Presidential Historian David Pietrusza

To officially open our new exhibit, A Time For Greatness: The 1960 Kennedy Campaign, this week we brought in noted presidential historian David Pietrusza, author of 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon, along with several other books about notable presidential campaigns.

David Pietrusza (left) with Museum curator Stephen Fagin
David Pietrusza (right) with Museum curator Stephen Fagin

You’ve written several books about presidential electoral history. What intrigued you most about 1960?

You have these three guys that everybody knows, Kennedy, Nixon & Johnson, that were so different from each other & they all mean so much to people today. These guys have shaped our entire lives.

Your book talks about all 3 candidates from the 1960 election. Without getting into the actual politics, do you see any parallels with candidates from this year’s election?

David Pietrusza at "Kennedy Campaign HQ" in the Museum's A Time For Greatness exhibit
David Pietrusza at “Kennedy Campaign HQ” in the Museum’s A Time For Greatness exhibit

Our candidates this year are clearly…unparalleled. She wouldn’t like the comparison, but in a way, Hillary is a little like Nixon. She comes back from adversity. But as for Trump…no, no comparisons. There’s no one like him.

Having researched so many presidents, what makes Kennedy stand out? Why is he so memorable?

He’s martyred, first of all. That certainly cements him in our memory. He’s also incredibly charming and glib and smart and photogenic. His father worked in Hollywood, he’d been to Hollywood, he saw how stars are made. He was our greatest star president in terms of persona.

What advice would you give young historians?

Read, read a lot. Go to YouTube and go watch old documentaries. Go past the cat videos and all that and go for the good stuff. There’s so many old documentaries that are so fantastic, like Project XX or Robert Ryan’s CBS documentary on World War I. Keep reading and watching and you’ll start connecting the dots for yourself, and that’s where the fun really begins.

Your favorite president ever?

I think it’s Calvin Coolidge. I like his style and his accomplishments. I was always very shy as a child and even now. You get me going on history and I’ll talk your ear off, but aside from that, I understand what Coolidge had to go through to get elected. When I started knocking on doors to get elected to City Council, I learned it’s very hard to do that and to offer yourself up without selling out your values. I think he did that. He presented himself in a way that generated trust. There’s something to be said about integrity.


A Time For Greatness is open through November 13. Learn more at JFK.org/ATimeForGreatness.