A leader of style and substance
It was his brother who was groomed for the White House but bravery, composure and an easy charm that captivated audiences made ‘Jack’ the perfect candidate
John F Kennedy showed grace under fire throughout his time in the White House
Popular culture often provides a good barometer of where reputation stands. John F Kennedy, it seems, is a case of mercury falling.
In the recent NBC TV series, Smash – a backstage soap about a Broadway musical centred on Marilyn Monroe – President Kennedy features as a ruthless, cold-hearted, sex-obsessed predator. This unflattering characterisation is based on revelations over the last 20 years or so by writers such as Seymour Hersh about “the dark side” of the Kennedys. Yet despite that exposé, something still remains in the assessment made by Newsweek’s Ben Bradlee in the days immediately after JFK’s assassination that “history will judge him well – for his wisdom and his compassion and his grace.”
The 35th president of the United States was born John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the suburbs of Boston on 29 May 1917 to Irish-American parents, Joseph P Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. The family traced its ancestry back to many parts of Ireland, including counties Wexford, Limerick, Cavan and Cork.
Rose’s father, John “HoneyFitz” Fitzgerald, was a kind of prototype for his grandson, both in becoming the first Catholic mayor of Boston in 1906 and as a notorious womaniser.
While the 1929 Wall Street Crash claimed many fortunes, Joseph P Kennedy’s was one that survived. By putting his money at the disposal of Franklin D Roosevelt’s presidential campaigns in 1932 and 1936, Kennedy achieved the political access that he had long craved. In 1938, he asked to be sent to London as ambassador. FDR was happy to oblige, keen to get a man he considered reptilian as far away from Washington as possible.
The ambassador never hid that he wanted to make his son president, but it was his eldest boy, Joe jnr, on whose shoulders his hopes rested. His second son “Jack” enjoyed a more relaxed youth than his driven older brother. He developed an easy charm and humour to complement his skinny good looks. His Harvard thesis, published in 1940 as Why England Slept, showed that he had promise as a political writer. Of the four Kennedy boys, he seemed to combine many of their better attributes, being brighter than Teddy, less highly strung than Bobby, and more tolerant than Joe jnr.
Jack was also brave. When war came, he enlisted in the US Navy despite an existing back problem, and distinguished himself when a torpedo craft under his command (PT-109) was rammed by a Japanese destroyer near the Solomon Islands in 1943. Kennedy led the nine surviving crew members back to safety after five nights behind enemy lines. When the story was written up the following year in the New Yorker, Kennedy became a public war hero.