John Fitzgerald Kennedy - 35th President of the United States Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

John Fitzgerald Kennedy - 35th President of the United States

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John F Kennedy. Picture courtesy National Archives and Records.
The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly.

John F Kennedy (nicknamed 'JFK' or 'Jack') came from a long line of Boston and New England politicians, and he would rise to be the most prominent of the men from the Kennedy Family Political Dynasty. JFK would become one of the most important and famous presidents that the United States would ever see. In his short presidency, he witnessed triumph, controversy and a stunning end. Kennedy governed the US through one of its most dangerous times.

Of course, it all has to start somewhere...

The Kennedy Family

JFK was born on 29 May, 1917, to Rose and Joseph Kennedy in Brookline, Massachusetts. The house that he was born in is now a National Historic Site. John was born into an Irish, Democratic, Roman Catholic1 family with a strong history in politics.

The Kennedy Family is a fascinating and famous political family in America. They are, in the opinion of some, the closest thing to royalty in the US and John F Kennedy is of course the best known of the Kennedys. The family has produced countless numbers of politicians who have been elected to or have served in public office. Because of this, they are considered to be one of the most powerful political dynasties in the US.

The Kennedys have strong roots in New England, and many have accents from the region (ie Boston accents). They have some Irish roots, but mostly political ones. The family's political dynasty was started by Patrick Joseph Kennedy (born 14 January, 1858) who was elected to the Massachusetts State Senate in 1892 as a Democrat. Patrick would become one of the most powerful political figures in Boston, especially when his son Joseph Patrick Kennedy2 married Rose, the daughter of John Francis Fitzgerald (mayor of Boston).

Joseph became a multi-millionaire and familiar with the stock market - eventually becoming one of the richest men in America. Not long after the crash of 1929, Joseph was appointed as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1937, Joseph was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom, but resigned in 1940. Joseph and his wife Rose would have nine children:

  • Joseph Patrick was the eldest son, and enlisted in the Navy for World War II, but died in combat.

  • John Fitzgerald also enlisted in the military, but served well and returned alive. He would go on to become the most prominent of all the Kennedys. He would marry the fashionable Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and would have three children:

    • Caroline Bouvier
    • John Fitzgerald Jr
    • Patrick Bouvier
  • Rosemary was born mentally retarded, and the family was long ashamed of her.

  • Kathleen served for the Red Cross in World War II, and died in France in an airplane crash.

  • Eunice Mary was one of the most graceful Kennedy women. She married Robert Sargent Shriver Jr and had five children:

    • Robert Sargent
    • Maria Owings
    • Timothy Perry
    • Mark Kennedy
    • Anthony Paul
  • Patricia had four children with her husband, 'Ratpack' actor Peter Lawford:

    • Christopher Kennedy
    • Sydney Maleia
    • Victoria Francis
    • Robin Elizabeth
  • Robert Francis was among the most famous and powerful of the Kennedys and had 11 children:

    • Kathleen Hartington
    • Joseph Patrick
    • Robert Francis
    • David Anthony
    • Mary Courtney
    • Michael LeMoyne
    • Mary Kerry
    • Christopher George
    • Matthew Maxwell Taylor
    • Douglas Harriman
    • Rory Elizabeth Katherine
  • Jean Ann had four children with Stephen Edward Smith:

    • Stephen Edward
    • William Kennedy
    • Amanda Mary
    • Kym Marie
  • Edward Moore, also known as Ted Kennedy, enlisted in the navy during WWII and was the longest-surviving Kennedy Brother until his death in 2009. He had three children:

    • Kara Ann
    • Edward Moore
    • Patrick Joseph

Early Life

Before John, Joseph Kennedy Jr was born, and was JFK's older brother. Joe and John competed constantly, because their father had taught them that it was important to win. The two would get in fistfights as children. As adults, they still shared a rivalry.

When he was 13 years old, John was sent to the Canterbury School, but was transferred to the Choate school the next year, where he and his brother Joe would continue their rivalry. John was an average student, and finished 64th of a class of 112 in 1935. Joe received a trophy for his academic and athletic achievements. However, his classmates voted John Most Likely to Succeed.

The Kennedy clan traditionally went to Harvard, which is among the most prestigious Universities in the US, and it was the route of Joe, but partly to avoid competition with his older brother, John decided to go to Princeton. During the summer before he began school, he went to England, where he contracted jaundice. John had to put off going to Princeton right away, and because the jaundice kept interrupting his education, decided to drop out around Christmas.

John went back to Harvard. For most of his time there, he was a C-Student, but did very well in his later years.

John took off the second semester of his senior year to go travelling in Europe. His father had been appointed by FDR as ambassador to Britain at this time, so John would be able to see people and places he might not normally have seen. Near the end of his trip, World War II began, and Kennedy went to Scotland to help American survivors of the attacked British ship Athenia.

After he left Europe, John wrote his senior thesis on how Allied Forces tolerated Hitler early on. It would be published (with the help of John's father) and become a best seller, under the title of Why England Slept. He would later say:

I was always interested in writing. I wanted to teach for a while. So that if it hadn't been for what happened3... I suppose I would have gone on with my original plans.

In fact, many in Kennedy's family originally thought he would eventually become a writer or a teacher, not a politician. Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940 as Cum Laude. John went to Stanford Business school for about six months, and then dropped out, opting to be in the Navy instead.

In the Navy...

Kennedy used his father's political connections to get him an officer position in the Navy during World War II4. 26-year-old Kennedy was a junior grade Lieutenant serving in the South Pacific, as captain of PT-109. The ship had 13 crew aboard.

After midnight on August 2, 1943, PT-109 broke away from a formation of PT boats who were doing a sweep of the area. Suddenly, an enemy Japanese ship, the Amagiri was spotted. Just after someone shouted 'Ship at two o'clock', it slammed into the boat, which instantly killed two people from a gasoline tank explosion. Kennedy was thrown against the cockpit wall from the tremendous force. Patrick McMahon - aged 39 (the oldest aboard) - was severely burnt in the engine room. Another man, George Ross, nearly drowned. The rest of the surviving crew were not seriously injured.

As the stern of the ship sunk, Kennedy instructed his men and helped bring survivors to the floating part. He then ordered his men to swim to a small, nearby island. They kept together by paddling on a wooden plank5. Within about four hours of paddling, the men reached the small island.

By 4 August, Kennedy and the men of PT-109 were starving. The men were moved to another, larger island in search of food. They arrived at that island in much the same way that they had gone to the original island. From there, Kennedy and George Ross swam to another island in search of food again, and found a case of candy near a wrecked Japanese ship. By the time Ross and Kennedy rejoined the men, he found that they had met natives who were friendly to Allied Forces of WWII. The natives sent a message to Allied Forces, and guided survivors to Gomu Island. They were soon rescued there.

Many labelled Kennedy as a hero for his actions at the wreck of PT-109. It would certainly help him in his later political years, where being a war hero would be a definite asset.

John was taken back to the US four months after the PT-109 incident. He contracted malaria. He also had aggravated a back injury he had picked up in college from playing football. Eventually, he had to have an operation performed on his back at Chelsea Naval Hospital, outside of Boston, during of recovery of which is when John learned of his brother's death. This would be the beginning of back problems that would continue to require surgery and plague him for the rest of his life.

Kennedy would reveal to a friend of his later that he would indeed be trying to use his distinguished war service to give him a political advantage. JFK could use the PT-109 incident to be considered a war hero. Indeed, he proved this was possible, when old Navy friends would help campaign for him later on.

Medical Problems

It was revealed in 2002 that Kennedy also suffered from Addison's Disease and some problems with his digestion that resulted from his treatment of colitis with steroids. The general public would remain unaware of these until well after his death.

They didn't know that some days he couldn't lean forward and didn't know that he had been given last rites three times in his life before becoming President.

The worst of his problems was his back, though. An injury from playing a football game in college (as well as his injuries from the Navy) created to his back problems. Kennedy's first operation was in October 1954, when a risky spinal fusion surgery was performed. Kennedy understood the risk, but knew that the surgery was necessary. Throwing down his crutches, he once said 'I'd rather die than spend the rest of my life on these things!'. After the operation, he nearly did die on two occasions, and found that the surgery was not successful.

Again, in February 1955, Kennedy had a back operation. While recovering in Florida, he wrote Profiles in Courage - a collection of biographies on politicians who use principle to make decisions. Many think that it was during this time that Kennedy decided to run for President.

Early Political Career

As is the tradition of Kennedy men, JFK went into politics early on as a Democrat. He was partially convinced into doing this by his father. Many now consider this destiny.

In Early 1946, Kennedy announced his candidacy for Representative of the 11th district in Massachusetts - which is East Boston. His family campaigned for him heavily. Friends from the Navy and from College also campaigned for him. Joe Kennedy paid for a very large advertising budget - though he was accused of buying votes. John won the Democratic primary 2-1 over the second most vote-getting opponent. The 11th district was heavily Democratic, so his victory was assured even before the election, as he was the favoured party's nominee.

Kennedy was one of the most eligible bachelors in politics, until 1951. He met a George Washington University Student named Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (known as 'Jackie') at a dinner party. She was the daughter of John Bouvier III, a wealthy financial broker. On 12 September, 1953, Kennedy wed Jackie. She became a fashionable wife and helped Kennedy gain popularity.

He held the office for several years, winning again in 1948 and 1950. He advanced to the US Senate in the 1952 election, upsetting popular Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr by 70,637 votes, and by this time was a very popular and important figure in Washington DC. Partially because of his association with the powerful Kennedy family and their wealth, John became a major figure in the Democratic Party. His family was valuable in his elections, by paying for advertisements, leading campaigns and raising funds.

As a Senator, Kennedy attempted to help industries in his native Massachusetts, such as fishing and watchmaking. Kennedy was initially a member of the Senate Labor Committee and the Government Operations Committee (led by the infamous Joe McCarthy6). JFK's brother Robert Kennedy was chief counsel for this committee.

In 1957, Kennedy got a place on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, an important role. He was also on a committee that investigated corruption in Labour Unions. JFK's brother, Robert Kennedy was chief counsel of this committee.

Getting Nominated

Kennedy realised that he wanted to run for President in 1956, but Adlai Stevenson seemed the obvious choice for the Democratic nomination. However, Stevenson left the choice of his running mate up to the Democratic National Convention. Kennedy campaigned heavily, and was a strong candidate for the Vice President office. The first vote of delegates at the convention had Kennedy tied with Senator Estes Kefauver for Vice Presidential Nominee. The second vote was again a tie. On the third vote, Kefauver won by only two votes. Stevenson and Kefauver went on to lose to Dwight D Eisenhower that year.

In 1960, Kennedy was again a very strong candidate for the office of Vice President. However, Kennedy had made up his mind that he would run for President. Kennedy's main opponents for the 1960 nomination were Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon B Johnson. Humphrey was his more serious competition, as Johnson, as Senate Majority Leader, was too busy to campaign. JFK announced his candidacy on January 2, 1960. He won the first primary in New Hampshire. On April 5, Kennedy won 56% of the vote in the Wisconsin Primary. On May 10, he won the West Virginia primary7 with 61%, which basically won Kennedy the nomination. Humphrey withdrew his candidacy, but a significant minority still opposed him in the Democratic National Convention.

Notably, some politicians questioned Kennedy because of his age, but he argued that he was a very senior Senator and had plenty of experience in politics. Kennedy managed to win the Democratic nomination (with 806 votes where 761 votes were needed) after some extensive campaigning, and quickly offered Lyndon Johnson the chance to be his running mate. JFK didn't expect Johnson to take the offer, but he accepted it. Lyndon Johnson was supposed to bring votes from Southerners, who might be opposed to the Northerner, Catholic Kennedy, but might like the Southerner, Protestant, Conservative Vice President Johnson.

The Presidential Election of 1960 and the Great Debates

I have just received the following wire from my generous daddy, 'Dear Jack - Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary - I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide.'
John F Kennedy and an American flag.

In 1960, there were two major candidates for President Richard M Nixon and running mate Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr had managed to gain the Republican nomination and of course John F Kennedy and running mate Lyndon Johnson held the Democratic nomination.

The most important part of this election was the 'Great Debates', which were the very first televised Presidential Debates. They pitted Nixon against Kennedy for the entire country to see. In them, Kennedy showed his natural charisma and intelligence, while Nixon (while certainly not unintelligent) was sweaty and nervous throughout the debates. In fact, he refused to wear makeup and felt sick throughout the first broadcast. Kennedy was more lively, spontaneous and funny.

Research would clearly show that the people who watched the debate on TV would support Kennedy, but radio listeners had no preference. This showed the power of television to shape the perception of the public in politics. Kennedy had realised this, and would later write about TV as 'a force that has changed the political scene' for TV Guide Magazine on 14 November, 1959.

The wonders of science and technology have revolutionized the modern American political campaign...

It is your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where need. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.

These four debates occurred on 26 September, 7 October, 13 October and 21 October, 1960. Many people think that the results of the 1960 election would have been dramatically different if not for the Great Debates.

The election was held on 8 November. It was a very close election, and many people went to sleep that day without knowing who was President. In the end, Kennedy, of course, triumphed8 against Nixon and Lodge9. and Kennedy won the electoral college by 303 votes to 21910, but narrowly winning the popular vote by 34,227,096 to 34,107,646. Nixon lost by only 114,673 votes, and by 84 electoral votes, even though Nixon won 26 states and Kennedy only won 22.

He was inaugurated on 20 January, 1961, and the oath of office was read by Chief Justice Earl Warren at the Capitol Building, making him the youngest person to be elected President at the age of 4311. He was not the youngest person to serve in the office of President, though, as Theodore Roosevelt succeeded William McKinley after he died in office, at the age of 42. In his inaugural address, Kennedy said to America what is possibly his most famous quote:

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.

His cabinet would be appointed as:

  • Secretary of State
    Dean Rusk
  • Secretary of the Treasury
    C Douglas Dillon
  • Secretary of Defense
    Robert S McNamara
  • Attorney General
    Robert F Kennedy12
  • Postmaster General
    J Edward Day
  • Secretary of the Interior
    Stewart L Udall
  • Secretary of Agriculture
    Orville L Freeman
  • Secretary of Commerce
    Luther H Hodges
  • Secretary of Labor
    Arthur J Goldberg
  • Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
    Abraham A Ribicoff

H2G2 Links

Photograph courtesy of the National Archives and Records.

1He would, in fact, become the first Roman Catholic President.2Whose middle and first name are really just switched with his father's names.3This referred to the death of his brother Joe, which made John the eldest Kennedy man and more likely to go into politics.4This was unusual, as many rich children might use their father's connections to get them a job away from danger.5Except the burnt McMahon who was unable to paddle. Kennedy guided him by holding onto McMahon's life preserver with his teeth and keeping him afloat as he pulled him.6Kennedy was criticized in 1954 for not voting to condemn McCarthy. He probably would have, as he thought the Senator was abusing his power, but he was ill and away from the Senate at the time.7Which was a difficult place for him to win, as his wealth, religion and Northern appearance were not exactly considered good qualities in West Virginia.8Although it has been widely speculated that Chicago Mayor Richard J Daley stole votes that helped Kennedy win (if not won him) the election.9This was the second time that Kennedy defeated Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. He had won a US Senate Seat against Lodge in 1952.10Additionally, candidate Harry Byrd won 15 Electoral Votes.11Some suggest that Kennedy wanted to become President early because he did not expect to live into the years that men usually become President - because of his assorted medical problems.12JFK's brother. He would become JFK's closest ally and advisor in the White House.

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