John Fitzgerald Kennedy: 1917-1964

By United Press International  |  November 22 1963
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On a bitterly cold and snowy day in January, 1961, when he was inaugurated 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy sounded a call to action that in many ways summed up his own remarkable career.

"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike," he said, "that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a cold and bitter peace."

Kennedy was all these, and he bore the torch of world leadership in a society where the old order was changing fast. On that January day, no man had ever flown in space. On that day Negroes in southern cities such as Jackson and Birmingham were not yet demonstrating. On that day the world had not come consciously close to nuclear destruction as it did in the great Cuban crisis of 1962.

"Sure it's a big job," Kennedy once said. "But I don't know anybody who can do it any better than I can. I'm going to be in it for four years. It isn't going to be so bad. You've got time to think - and besides, the pay is good."

He later found out - and conceded - that it was a bigger job than he originally believed. But it is unlikely that he ever once wavered in the belief that no one could handle it as well as he could. To think otherwise would have been a negation of his whole life.

The presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in the fierce pride of an Irish immigrant family. It was carefully nurtured in the training stages by a multi-millionaire father, and brought to fruition by the man himself through a distinguished career in the House and Senate and on the tricky campaign trails of America.

In a manner typical of his family, Kennedy started at the top in many things.

He was a product of Choate, Harvard, and the London School of Economics. He produced his first book, "Why England Slept," in 1940 at the age of 23. On his second literary try in 1956, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his widely acclaimed "Profiles in Courage."

He also started at the top in politics. There was nothing up-from-the-precincts in his career. He started after the war by winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from his native state of Massachusetts. After six years in the House he ran for the Senate. That year - 1952 - was a bad year for Democrats because of the Eisenhower landslide. But Kennedy defeated Henry Cabot Lodge, a scion of an old New England family whose Brahmin roots were so vastly different from those of the Kennedys.

Kennedy's World War II record became a national conversation piece. The saga of PT-109, how Kennedy commanded a PT boat in the Solomons that was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, was celebrated in books, a motion picture and countless retelling by magazines, newspapers and television.

Kennedy coupled this illustrious background with a headlong drive for the presidency that has been seldom matched for vigor, tenacity and expense. But despite this, he barely made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

With the largest voter turnout in history, he defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1960 by scarcely 100,000 ballots. Kennedy's 34,227,096 popular votes gave him an Electoral College edge of 330 to 219 over Nixon, who got 34,108,546 popular votes.

Not many hours before Kennedy took office, the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, voiced deep satisfaction that one of his four sons had made it to the American pinnacle.

But the elder Kennedy, one of the wealthiest men of his time, knew his older son faced problems as no other president has confronted.

"He's got to be good from the very start," said Joe Kennedy to a friend, "not only because of his youth, but because the world has reached a point where the American president can make damn few mistakes and get away with it. This means Jack must make a go of it right from the beginning - and it means he'll need all the support he can possibly get."

Kennedy entered office on a surge of towering personal popularity. The new president, his strikingly attractive wife Jacqueline, and their children made one of the most appealing and photogenic families ever to occupy the White House.

Their styles, their tastes, their preferences in sports from touch football to waterskiing, swept the nation in a Jack-and-Jackie fad. Motion picture fan magazines dropped cinema sirens for months and emblazoned their covers with alluring pictures of the first lady in bathing suits, riding costumes and T-shirts.

Newspaper and feature writers, night club and television comedians, recording stars and composers combined to spread the doings of the Kennedys. A great cult of personality swept the nation. Not since the early days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal did a president and those around him become such an object of interest to the entire nation.

Undisputed personal popularity did not protect Kennedy, however, from the lash of severe criticism that accompanied some of the efforts of his administration. Nor did it rub off on Congress to the extent that the lawmakers fell over themselves to get his programs passed.

In fact, his New Frontier legislative proposals were often embattled. His defeats in this area sometimes were impressive, his victories frequently narrow.

His great problems at the start were foreign policy and the domestic economy. In many ways both were later to be overshadowed by the Negro "revolution" of 1963 which confronted the nation with one of its gravest domestic crises since the Civil War.

Overseas, there was the ever-present threat posed by the Soviet Union, the troubles in Southeast Asoa, and - over and over again - Cuba. The Kennedys had barely unpacked their bags in 1961 when the image of the bright young American president was tarnished by the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. The plan to land exiles in Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro was conceived in the Eisenhower administration, and executed by the Kennedy men.

The disaster - for which Kennedy accepted full responsibility - lay like a pall on the administration for months. But if April, 1961, was a fiasco, October, 1962, was an unprecedented triumph.

The Cuban missile crisis was a test of all the skill and courage that Kennedy could command. By ordering a blockade but not sinking any ships, by talking softly but carrying the big stick of nuclear retaliation, he forced the Soviet Union to withdraw the missiles it had placed in Cuba and thereby scored one of the greatest Western triumphs of the Cold War. Just as the Bay of Pigs was the low-water mark of the first years, the Cuban crisis was the high tide.

The man at the troubled U.S. helm through this vast sea of difficulty was born at his family's Brookline, Mass., home outside Boston May 29, 1917. He had an older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., who was killed in World War II. After John's birth, four girls, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice and Patricia, followed before the third son, Robert F. Kennedy, was born in 1925. He became attorney general in his brother's administration. After Robert, there was another girl, Jean, and then Edward F., the last of nine children, born in 1932. The youngster of the family continued the tradition of successful politics by being elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts in 1962 at the age of 30.

The family grew up in an atmosphere of politics, fired by two grandfathers whose scramble as Irish immigrants from the East Boston shanties of potato famine refugees to lace curtain respectability underscored the American dream.

The two energetic grandfathers who put long-lasting political steam in the family were:

--Patrick J. Kennedy, born in Boston in 1862, 12 years after his father fled impoverished Ireland. Patrick was a saloon keeper and ward politician who prospered, became a political power in the city and sent his son Joe to Boston Latin School and Harvard.

--John F. Fitzgerald, born in Boston in 1863, first native American of Irish descent to become Boston's mayor. His daughter Rose, went to convent colleges in New York and Europe. "Honey Fitz" as the mayor was known, lived to sing "Sweet Adeline" the night John F. Kennedy won his first congressional election.

Joe Kennedy, Patrick's son, courted Rose Fitzgerald for seven years and married her in 1914 at a ceremony in the private chapel of William Cardinal O'Connell. Properly married and a large family on the way, Joe Kennedy set out to be a millionaire before he was 35 - a goal which he met handily after becoming the country's youngest bank president at 25.

Then followed meteoric financial careers in the business side of motion pictures, the stock market, real estate and in scotch whiskey. He was one of the first to detect repeal was on its way and tied up the U.S. distributorship for one of Scotland's proudest products.

A heavy contributor to the 1932 campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joe Kennedy was brought into the government as first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which astonished many brokers who had felt the crunch of Joe's heel on their necks in tough stock market deals. Presiding so successfully at the SEC over outlawing many market practices which had helped make him rich, Joe Kennedy was then given another major assignment by Roosevelt - organizing the Maritime Commission as chairman.

In 1938 Joe Kennedy was made ambassador to Great Britain. But he broke with Roosevelt during FDR's third term campaign by taking positions regarded as isolationist in relation to the then-building World War II.

While the elder Kennedy rammed his way to the top, he demanded the same performance from his sons. Being unable to make the presidency himself, there was no doubt in the minds of many contemporaries that Joe Kennedy wanted Joe Jr. to become president.

Had Joe Jr. survived the war, the elder Kennedy might have made his mark at the White House with his firstborn. As it was, Jack was relatively in Joe's vigorous shadow as he followed him through school and college. Quieter, more introspective than his brother, John leaned toward a career in writing or teaching. Perhaps this would have been his life if his older brother had lived for the political career he intended - and which his father intended for him.

In fact, some years later it was John who said, of his own political career, "It I had been killed, it would have been Bobby."

Jack was luckier in surviving his wartime ordeal dumped in the South Pacific near New Georgia island in August, 1943. He and his crew were rescued after spending many hours in the water and five days on a tiny island. The experience aggravated a youthful back injury. He also contracted malaria. After several months in a naval hospital in Massachusetts, he was released from the Navy early in 1945.

After the war, Kennedy dabbled in newspaper work, then decided to try for a Boston congressional seat being vacated by the incumbent. Only 29, he campaigned hard, talked pocketbook issues and won the nomination over a field of nine other Democrats. Running in a normally Democratic district, he easily defeated his Republican opponent in the election.

In Congress, Kennedy kept the home political fences in good repair. He was identified with the liberals but was viewed more as an independent than a doctrinaire Democrat. He generally supported President Harry S. Truman's domestic policies and the Greek-Turkish aid bill and the Marshall Plan as well.

But in 1948, he was blaming the White House and State Department for the loss of China to communists.

By 1948, Kennedy was beginning to seek statewide recognition with an eye to running against Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1952 for the campaign against Lodge, he relied on a personal political organization as he had done when he first ran for the House.

In that 1952 campaign, the entire Kennedy family of brothers and sisters and in-laws moved in to help with "coffee hours" and other political innovations. They were to be used again later in Kennedy's 1960 campaigns in state presidential primaries.

Lodge lost his Senate seat to Kennedy while President Eisenhower carried the state by more than 200,000 votes.

Kennedy was married Sept. 12, 1953, to Jacqueline Bouvier, then 23, at a fashionable wedding at Newport, R.I. Like Kennedy she came from a wealthy New England Catholic family, although she had lived mostly in New York and Washington. A daughter, Caroline, was born in 1957; a son, John Jr., in 1961.

Kennedy's early service in the Senate was marked by the struggle over condemning the conduct of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. Although he had been ready to vote against McCarthy when the issue first was raised, he was ailing and not present when the showdown came. By failing to announce his position, he offended some liberal Democrats, including Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt who were reluctant or unwilling to forgive him in future years.

Kennedy spent about six months in hospitals in 1954 and 1955 undergoing and convalescing from serious operations on his injured back. He was once near death but was back in Washington in the spring of 1955 to resume his work in the Senate.

During his absence, he wrote "Profiles in Courage," which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography. It was a series of essays on acts of political courage by senators.

In strenuous campaigning for re-election to the Senate in 1958 and for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1950, Kennedy gave no evidence that his back ailment still bothered him.

Kennedy won his first burst of national attention at the 1956 Democratic National Convention. He narrated a film depicting the history of the party and made the nominating speech for Adlai E. Stevenson, who won the nomination. An active candidate for second place on the ticket, Kennedy lost it by a whisker to Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee in a convention floor battle packed with drama.

The 1956 convention was in fact the launching pad for his campaign for the presidential nomination of 1960.

In 1958, Kennedy easily won re-election to the Senate and then a prized seat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

He also was a member of the special Senate committee set up to investigate racketeering practices in labor-management relations. His younger brother, Robert, was counsel for the same committee.

Although the union movement was cold at first toward any reform legislation, most of its leaders eventually conceded that some was inescapable. Kennedy piloted one labor bill to passage in 1958 only to have it die in the House.

That bill and to a lesser extent another managed by Kennedy in 1959 were accepted by most union leaders. They opposed the bill, however, after it was drastically rewritten by the House, but many of them absolved Kennedy from responsibility for the final product.

As a candidate for the 1960 presidential nomination, Kennedy was criticized on grounds that he was too young and inexperienced. But his biggest problem was the religious issue which stirred some Democrats to recall the 1928 defeat of Catholic Alfred E. Smith.

Kennedy met the issue head-on, declaring his support for the constitutional provision requiring separation of church and state. After taking an oath to support the Constitution, he said, a president who took orders from the pope would be guilty of a crime and subject to impeachment.

After his series of victories in state presidential primaries that spring, including overwhelmingly protestant West Virginia, Kennedy expressed the belief that the religious issue had been removed from the campaign.

Even when his Catholic faith seemed a political handicap, the buildup Kennedy had been getting through national publicity for three years made him the man to beat far in advance of the 1960 convention.

His toughest convention opposition came from the forces of Senate Democratic leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. The Kennedy organization was too much for old pro Johnson, however, and the Texas accepted second place on the Kennedy ticket.

The resultant campaign by Kennedy and Johnson against Nixon and his running mate, JFK's 1952 victim, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., brought a new dimension to American politics - the television debate. Seasoned political observers believed long after the election that if Nixon, better known to the public than his opponent but not nearly the smooth television personality, would have defeated Kennedy if he had avoided the debates. In fact, Kennedy and his campaign manager, brother Robert, shared this belief, but stated it differently: that television was one of the chief ingredients in the Democratic victory.

The narrowness of this victory, however, tempered Kennedy's widely-voiced liberalism and moderated the tone of his New Frontier legislative program. His lack of a truly two-fisted mandate from the American people colored his relations with Congress in the early White House years.

There were times when his policies seemed as middle-of-the-road as those of his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was highly annoying to the advanced liberals of the party.

There were major administration accomplishments legislatively, but not one was gained without extensive effort and close margins. Relations with Congress were not helped when the Democrats scarcely held their own in the 1962 mid-term elections. Kennedy, however, derived comfort from the fact that the Democrats did not lose as many seats as usual for the party in power during an off-year election, but the net results showed the country still narrowly divided between the major parties.

During his early years the president devoted most of his domestic efforts to the state of the U.S. economy. His bruising, crushing battle with Big Steel in 1962, when he forced the major producers to rescind price increases, gave him an "anti-business" label which he disowned but came to accept as almost inevitable. But many of his later economic proposals won business support.

The state of the economy, he felt, was the nation's No. 1 domestic concern. But this feeling went out the window in the spring of 1963 when the Negro population exploded in demonstrations and sit-ins and marches which became so grave the president called the movements a threat to public order. To counteract it he submitted a drastic program of civil rights legislation to Congress and used all his own personal influence to bring whites and Negroes together.

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