On Nov. 7, 1960, a 13-year-old girl purchased five minutes of television time on a Reno television station to make the case for John Kennedy’s presidential candidacy.
It’s a parable about how politics has changed in five decades, and not necessarily for the better. Today, she would face major obstacles to even making the broadcast, and she would probably be the target of vitriolic attacks if she did.
Suellen Fulstone lived in Coleville, Calif., near the Nevada border on the Walker River south of Topaz Lake. She paid $100 ($781.78 in 2012 dollars) for the five minutes of time on Reno’s KOLO, then the city’s only television station. Fifty dollars came from the prize money she received from an American Legion speech contest. The rest came from her small sheep herd. Her parents had a cattle ranch, but she preferred sheep and lambs.
When contacted to talk about the experience, she laughed that anyone even knew of it.
“No one’s wanted to talk about 1960 for a long time,” she said.
She said she was a very “intense” child.
“I thought that I had to do my part in this absolutely critical election in 1960. And so I called up the TV station, asked them how much it would be for five minutes, and they told me, and I got the money together.”
At the time of the election eve speech, she told an interviewer that her parents had tried to talk her into investing the money instead of spending it. But last week she also said that, if she was going to spend the money, they did not object to how she spent it.
“My folks were always very supportive of my sisters and my brother and myself,” she said. “They never said, ‘That’s a stupid idea’ or ‘What are you thinking of?’ or ‘No.’ You know, they didn’t let us do too many terribly dangerous things. It was pretty much, we wanted to do something, and it could be done, they were there to help us do it. So my folks drove me into Reno, and I had my speech written out, sat down at a table, they turned the TV on, and I gave it.”
In the KOLO studio on Fifth Street in Reno, she sat in front of a Kennedy poster wearing a campaign button. The building still stands, though KOLO moved out after a 1970s fire.
Regrettably, Fulstone did not save a copy of her remarks.
“I wasn’t really thinking that it was a big deal,” she said. “I thought it was, you know, if I could do something, I had to do it because I didn’t want to wake up the morning after the election and find out that Kennedy had lost when I had not done everything within my power to help him win.”
At least one sentence has survived in a news report in the Lexington Dispatch of North Carolina. In the fourth debate, 16 days before Fulstone gave her broadcast remarks, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon had been critical of “running down America the way Senator Kennedy has been running her down,” referring to Kennedy’s descriptions of conditions in the United States.
In her speech, Fulstone said, “Would you like a teacher to tell you your kid was doing fine in school and then send him home with a report card flunking him?”
That kind of analytical reasoning makes it unsurprising that Fulstone—after graduating from the University of Nevada (she had to work her way through as a Judicial College librarian and it took seven years)—went to Stanford Law and is today a well-known and accomplished attorney. She represented Charlie Daniels against a concert promoter, the band Judas Priest and Columbia Records in a lawsuit over claims that the group inserted dangerous subliminal messages in its music, and wealthy Incline Village landowners in a dispute with the Washoe County assessor that ended in a mammoth judgment.
Kennedy lost Fulstone’s (and Nixon’s) home state of California, but he carried Nevada (Pat Nixon’s native state) with 51.16 percent, an island of JFK support completely surrounded by Nixon states. The total Nevada vote cast for president was 107,627 compared to the 967,848 cast in the 2008 election. Voter turnout in the state has dropped from 64 percent in 1960 to 48 percent in 2008.
Fulstone’s action made headlines across the nation and around the world. The Boston Globe editorialized, “When the supporters of Sen. John F. Kennedy for the presidency are having their names inscribed on rolls of honor, let them put at the top Suellen Fulstone of Coleville, Calif. She’s only 13 years old, but her sense of civic duty and Democratic partisanship runs high. … If her type of dedication were matched by the nation’s voters, regardless of party, they would be exemplary citizens.”
People in Coleville were very warm toward their suddenly famous young citizen, she said.
The day after the election JFK learned what the girl from Coleville had done. She received a wire from him promising her the first inaugural invitation, followed by a hand-written note from Jacqueline Kennedy. The invitation to the inauguration and its accompanying events arrived the next month.
“The blonde ninth-grade honor student said she will wear a blue nylon gown to the ball and hopes to meet the new president,” read one news report that also quoted her saying, “Maybe I’ll get a chance to dance with him.”
Dancing with him was about the only thing she didn’t get to do. The Kennedy family installed her in their seating during the inaugural parade and the swearing-in ceremony. “A very big deal for a 13-year-old,” she says now with a smile.
She received many letters and telegrams—not one of them negative, a sharp contrast to the way it would probably happen in today’s poisonous politics. She is now a Barack Obama supporter, and there would probably be a lot of people who would not receive that news even from a 13-year-old with the respect and equanimity she was shown then, though that doesn’t seem to discourage her.
“I might even go on TV now, if it were easier,” she said, making clear that she has not lost whatever made her step forward in 1960. But she acknowledges the climate change and the hate mail that would result.
“Today there would be Twitter comments [with] whatever the words are that people use these days,” she said. “It would be ugly, completely ugly, probably. But it wasn’t like that then.”
In fact, today she probably would not be able to give her speech. Spending money to support a federal candidate independently is now very complicated, requiring, for example, registration with the Federal Election Commission—a product of post-Watergate scandal changes.
Fulstone is impressed by how much things have improved since 1960, particularly in civil rights. The 1960s were a brutal time for African Americans.
But she also believes public debate has become more meanspirited since 1960s.
She is preparing to retire as an attorney to go back to school and become a teacher.
“I want my last years, I hope my best years, to be spent teaching American history to fifth graders,” she said.
Fulstone was in American History class in junior high school in Coleville in 1963 when a teacher brought in word that President Kennedy had been shot. One of the enduring JFK quotes could easily have referred to his young admirer: “One person can make a difference, and every person should try.”