John Fitzgerald Kennedy, known from boyhood as Jack, was born on May 29, 1917. His father was the politically ambitious, self-made millionaire Joseph P. Kennedy; his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was the daughter of Boston Mayor "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald who launched a political dynasty.
The Kennedys raised their sons to occupy positions of power in the world. When his eldest son and namesake was killed in World War II, Joseph Kennedy focused his expectations on Jack. A Harvard graduate and war hero, the second Kennedy son was bright, witty, articulate, and attractive. At his father's urging and with his financial backing, he ran for Congress in 1946. Mayor Curley asked "With those two names, Kennedy and Fitzgerald, how could he lose?"
Indeed, although he was the Ivy League-educated son of a millionaire, he succeeded in winning the votes of the longshoremen, truck drivers, and other blue-collar workers who lived in the Massachusetts Eleventh District. In a year when the Massachusetts Democratic Party lost a U.S. Senate seat and the governorship, 29-year-old John F. Kennedy handily defeated his Republican opponent. In 1947, he headed to Washington.
After two terms in the House, he decided to run for the Senate. In 1952, he narrowly defeated Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Many of his supporters were drawn from the state's large immigrant communities. As biographer Robert Dallek has written, he was the "beneficiary of his father's fabulous wealth, a Harvard education, and a heroic career in the military fighting to preserve American values. Jack Kennedy was a model of what every immigrant family aspired to for themselves and their children."
In 1951, he had fallen in love with a beautiful 22-year-old socialite, Jacqueline Bouvier. Their wedding in September 1953 was called the social event of the year. His marriage and political success took place as Kennedy faced serious threats to his health. Diagnosed with Addison's disease in 1947, he suffered from other medical problems as wellheadaches, stomach aches, respiratory infections, and almost constant back pain. In late 1954 and early 1955, he had several life-threatening operations on his spine. Between May 1955 and September 1957, he was hospitalized nine times for a total of 44 days.
During his convalescence, he wrote a collection of essays about eight senators who had risked their careers by taking unpopular stands. Profiles in Courage became a bestseller and won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography. His national reputation continued to grow. In 1958, he won re-election to the Senate with a remarkable 73.6% of the vote, the largest popular margin ever received by a candidate in Massachusetts.
In January of 1960, John F. Kennedy announced he would seek the presidency. His health problems were a closely guarded secret. It was commonly known, however, that he was a practicing Catholic. He was only the second Catholic to attempt a run for president, and many believed his religion would doom his candidacy. After winning the Democratic nomination in the summer of 1960, he took the position "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic party's candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic."
During the fall of 1960, Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard Nixon sparred in a series of historic televised debates. On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy won a narrow victory. The closeness of the race was due in large part to the fact that millions of Protestants were unwilling to vote for a Catholic. At 43, he was the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic to be elected to the nation's highest office.
On January 9, 1961, President-elect Kennedy addressed the Massachusetts legislature. In perhaps the most famous line of the speech, he acknowledged that "of those to whom much is given, much is required." But his main subject was the unique legacy of the Bay State. "No man about to enter high office in this country," he said, "can ever be unmindful of the contribution this state has made to our national greatness…. Couragejudgmentintegritydedicationthese are the historic qualities of the Bay Colony and the Bay State."
On January 20, he stood in the bitter cold on the steps of the Capitol and, before a crowd of 20,000 people, was inaugurated the 35th
President of the United States.
An Unfinished Life, by Robert Dallek (Little Brown and Company, 2003).
The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster, 1987).