A new book from the Associated Press chronicles President John F. Kennedy's time in the White House, day by day — but before those fateful days began, he had to get elected. This introductory excerpt explains what he had to overcome to get there.
He was born into power and influence, the grandson of a Boston political legend, the son of an ambitious businessman intent on seeing his children reach heights he believed were denied him because of his religion and ancestry. If the young John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the second son of Irish Catholics Joseph Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, born in Massachusetts on May 29, 1917, dreamed of becoming president, he could hardly have chosen a better family setting. Great things were expected of young Jack and his siblings.
But young Jack Kennedy did not, in fact, dream of winning the presidency. As a young man, he envisioned himself as a journalist — not, to be sure, a fedora-wearing, whiskey-besotted wretch banging out crime stories on deadline, but a suave political commentator, moving and mixing easily in the company of presidents, prime ministers and statesmen. Elective politics, campaign oratory, and whistle-stop tours would be reserved for his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Brother Joe was the chosen one, an ebullient, outgoing young man who combined the charm of his material grandfather, Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, with the drive of his father and namesake, a banker and movie executive. Jack, on the other hand, was thin and sickly, unsuited, it seemed, for the rigors of campaign politics. His illnesses, which included stomach ailments, digestive woes and back pain, often landed him in the hospital for days and even weeks at a time.
His health, however, did not prevent him from enjoying the privileges that came with being a Kennedy in the late 1930s. He attended Harvard University, traveled to Europe, and visited Great Britain in 1939, while his father served as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. That following year, he published his first book, Why England Slept, an analysis of Britain’s failed attempt to appease German dictator Adolf Hitler in the mid-1930s. The success of Why England Slept indicated that Kennedy was a journalistic star in the making.
After graduating from Harvard in 1940 with a degree in international relations, Kennedy postponed his career ambitions to enlist in the Navy, a task that required all of his father’s political pull. Kennedy was so unhealthy that he flunked physical exams for both the Army and Navy in 1941. His father, however, arranged for a friendly doctor to administer another physical. This time he passed, and he was admitted into the Navy’s intelligence office months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
As the U.S. engaged the Japanese across the wide expanse of the South Pacific, Kennedy was assigned to command a small motor torpedo boat, more commonly known as a PT boat. His vessel, PT-109, was rammed and cut in half by a Japanese destroyer during an engagement near the Pacific island of South Georgia on August 1, 1943. Kennedy and 10 other crewmembers survived the crash — two crewmembers were killed on impact — but they were adrift in dangerous, shark-infested waters. Kennedy coolly led his men on a five-hour swim to a nearby island, with Kennedy towing a badly burned sailor too weak to swim on his own. The survivors of PT-109 eventually were rescued, and Lieutenant John F. Kennedy was an authentic war hero.
On the other side of the world, older brother Joe was gaining a reputation as a skillful and courageous Navy pilot in the European theater of operations. In late 1944, Joe, his crew, and his plane disappeared over the English Channel while on a bombing mission. There would be no brilliant postwar career in politics for Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.
When the war ended, Jack Kennedy resumed his interest in journalism. He wrote a magazine piece about Soviet-American relations in the postwar world, and he covered the initial conference of the new United Nations organization in San Francisco in late 1945. Within a few months, however, John Kennedy took up his older brother’s fallen mantle, declaring his candidacy for Congress in the 1946 midterm elections.
As a candidate, he lacked his brother’s panache and his grandfather’s back-slapping geniality. His would-be constituents were blue-collar Bostonians, not the well-tailored diplomats he mingled with during the U.N. conference. But he managed to exude charm and empathy to go along with his impressive war record, leading to victory on Election Day. It was the beginning of his historic journey to the White House.
Politics may not have been his first career choice, but Kennedy’s ambition led him to seek higher office after just two undistinguished terms in the House of Representatives. He ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1952 and defeated Henry Cabot Lodge, scion of one of New England’s oldest and most-fabled families. At the age of 35, John Kennedy took his place in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, a place that revered tradition, experience and discretion.
Kennedy’s youth, connections and ambition set him apart from many of his colleagues, and inspired a good deal of envy among them. Although Kennedy was a relative newcomer to Washington politics, reporters and columnists began touting him as a future presidential candidate. It did him no harm when he married a beautiful young photographer, Jacqueline Bouvier, in 1953. The press could hardly get enough of the handsome couple. They were smart and glamorous; the rest of Washington seemed dull and pedestrian.
The young senator seemed the picture of vitality. In reality, however, he continued to suffer from severe back pain and from Addison’s disease, a failure of the adrenal gland. This illness could be managed with cortisone shots, but it could not be cured. Kennedy decided to risk surgery on his back in 1954 against the advice of doctors, who thought the operation might kill him because of complications with Addison’s disease. Before the operation began, Kennedy received last rites from a Catholic priest.
JFK became the first patient with advanced Addison’s disease to survive such a major operation. While recuperating, Kennedy collaborated with his aides, chiefly a young speechwriter named Theodore Sorensen, on a new book about courage in politics. Profiles in Courage became a bestseller when it was published in 1956 and won Kennedy a Pulitzer Prize, although historians agree that Kennedy was not the book’s sole author. Some of Kennedy’s colleagues were not so impressed, suggesting privately that the author would do well to demonstrate less profile and more courage. The jibe may have been inspired in part because of Kennedy’s absence from the Senate when Senator Joseph McCarthy, a family friend, was formally censured for his anti-Communist witch hunt in 1954.
Kennedy’s own profile became even more prominent with the book’s success. When Democrats gathered for their presidential convention in the summer of 1956, Kennedy sought to capitalize on his name recognition, declaring himself a candidate for vice president when the party’s presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, announced that he would let the convention’s delegates decide on his running mate. Kennedy miscalculated, for his support among the party’s rank and file was not nearly as strong as he thought. Kentucky Senator Estes Kefauver won the vice presidential nomination on the second ballot. Kennedy delivered a gracious concession speech, asking the convention to declare Kefauver’s nomination to be unanimous.
The Stevenson-Kefauver ticket was doomed anyway, as incumbent President Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, won a resounding victory in November. Kennedy spent much of the next year preparing for his own reelection campaign in Massachusetts. Once safely returned to the Senate in 1958, he and his aides and family began plotting his next, most-audacious, move: a presidential campaign in 1960.
No Roman Catholic had ever won the presidency. Indeed, only one had ever won a major-party nomination, Alfred E. Smith in 1928. And Smith, a Democrat, was soundly defeated. His religion was one of the campaign’s major issues.
But John F. Kennedy was no Al Smith. He was urbane; Smith was urban. Kennedy was polished; Smith was rough-hewn. Kennedy attended the finishing school for the nation’s elite, Harvard; Smith dropped out of grade school to support his widowed mother, and joked that his “diploma” read “FFM” — Fulton Fish Market, where he spent his adolescence.
But even if Kennedy seemed less alien than Smith, he faced other questions. He was very young — he turned 43 in 1960 — and was relatively inexperienced. At least two Democratic contenders, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, had far more substantive records on Capitol Hill. Some members of the party’s old guard, including former president Harry Truman and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, opposed him.
Kennedy put together a first-rate team of advisers, including Kenneth O’Donnell, Pierre Salinger, Stephen Smith, and speechwriter Sorensen. Presiding over the campaign as its chief enforcer was Robert Kennedy, the senator’s younger brother. The Kennedy team steamrolled over opponents during the primaries and wrapped up the nomination at the party’s convention in Los Angeles.
John Kennedy went on to confront the religion issue with a speech to a group of Baptist ministers in Texas in September. He and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, engaged in four historic debates. The debates were televised, giving Kennedy, with his good looks and cool demeanor, a decided advantage.
On November 8, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president of the United States, becoming the first Catholic to achieve the nation’s highest office. His father’s dream was realized. He took office on January 20, 1961, after delivering perhaps the finest inaugural address of the 20th century.
A new era — the New Frontier, as Kennedy called it — had begun.
Photos and text excerpted with permission from JFK: A Daily Chronicle of the White House Years (The Associated Press, copyright 2017).