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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

From a wealthy, powerful and politically prominent Irish Catholic Family, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, nicknamed Jack, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917. As with all other presidents, his family shaped his life and career. While his father Joseph Kennedy instilled his drive, competitive spirit and a sense of obligation to national service, his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, made sure he received the best education, proper discipline, morality and most importantly, security. Not unlike Polk, Teddy Roosevelt and Truman, Kennedy faced physical challenges in childhood but managed to remain physically active. Also, like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Truman he became an avid reader. Yet unlike the always embattled Truman, this sense of security and confidence from his upbringing provided Kennedy a cool and detached persona necessary to deal with the many crises later in his life. He developed a "Lincoln-sense" about the fragility of life and fragility of success. Further, along with his wealth and intelligence, he was strikingly handsome and charming giving him every advantage through the new medium of television which he took the time to master.

Jack graduated from Harvard in 1940 and joined the US Navy just before the United States was drawn into WWII in 1941. Assigned to the South Pacific, he sustained a severe back injury when his PT-109 torpedo boat was destroyed on August 2, 1943 by a Japanese destroyer. Despite his suffering, he fearlessly swam and towed his surviving crew to safety. This example of extraordinary courage and determination became a hallmark of Kennedy's rapid rise to political leadership. Jack became a war hero and was awarded the Navy Marine Corps Medal his bravery and leadership and the Purple Heart for injury from enemy action in the South Pacific. Of course his father, Joe Kennedy ensured that his son received solid press coverage for these honors.

In 1946, he was elected to the first of three terms in the US House of Representatives. In 1952, he was prompted by his father to challenge the powerful Republican senator of Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge. With his money, power, political team and his keen persuasive skills, Jack defeated Lodge. This victory and his subsequent marriage in 1953 to the glamorous socialite Jacqueline Bouvier propelled him into the national spotlight. Nonetheless, Kennedy's marriage was a troubled one. Jackie was an extravagant spender and Jack, a philanderer, whose affairs persisted into his presidency yet remained out of public scrutiny because of the complicity of a cooperative press.

Because of continued back pain, Kennedy underwent back surgery (simultaneous posterior fusion of L5-S1 and the left sacroiliac joint) with a life-threatening postoperative course. During his recovery in 1955, he wrote Profiles in Courage, a collection of essays about politicians who took politically unpopular stands. Despite controversies about its authorship with influences from his father, the book won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography. This helped Jack's meteoric rise which culminated in a victory over more experienced rivals for the Democratic Party's nomination for President on July 13, 1960 to face Republican Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy was positioned as a leader of the new generation and poised to embark on a "New Frontier." His campaign for president set a precedent for future campaigns that exist today. Among his strategies were the innovative use of polling, personal organization separate from the party and image making. But the key event contributing to his narrow victory in the Presidential election campaign was a series of four televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon, the first of such in history. It was estimated that more than 100 million viewers watched at least one of the debates. It was argued that Nixon won the debates by radio while Kennedy prevailed by television. It was Kennedy's good looks, eloquence and poise that played well to the cameras. Nixon's face without make-up and his "5 o'clock shadow" made him appear haggard, pale and menacing. Also, Kennedy's choice of Lyndon Johnson as his running mate didn't hurt him to defeat Nixon "by an eyelash" on the November 8 election, one of the closest in American history. JFK became the 35th President of the United States, the nation's first Catholic and youngest ever elected. He was the first great president since Lincoln with no administrative experience, nevertheless Kennedy organized one of the most systematic and highly publicized transition in history.

In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, Jack asked Americans to make sacrifices for the greater good in an effort to pursue freedom abroad and prosperity and justice at home by urging Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Many were hopeful that this good looking young President with an appealing smile, a quick wit, an aura of confidence and with impressive oratorical abilities would lead America into a brighter future. Tragically, he was President for just over 1000 days. He did lead the nation through three turbulent years.

With his elegant wife Jacqueline and their two small children, Kennedy brought glamor and excitement to the White House. His good humor and high energy hid the fact that he suffered with excruciating pain from his back injury in the war. In the first year of his presidency, he supported a failed mission by anti-Castro Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. The next year, the Soviets put nuclear missiles in Cuba, but withdrew them after Kennedy imposed a naval blockade at time when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. He was entangled with the Cold War with the Soviets and increased United States involvement in Vietnam. Tensions eased with the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty though the "space race" continued. One of his crowning achievements was to encourage America's manned space program with a pledge to land a man on the moon. JFK was an ardent supporter of the Arts and mindful of the disadvantaged. He established the Peace Corps and proposed wide-ranging civil rights legislation but never saw its enactment. On November 22, 1963, he was shot to death in a Dallas, Texas. The nation watched and mourned as he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is marked by an eternal flame derived from a quote from his inaugural address, "...and the glow from that fire can truly light the world." He also left us with these words, "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind."

Jack made a lasting impression on American history. His tragic death brought premature closure to his energetic and revolutionary "Camelot" administration. His mystique continues to captivate us; like Abraham Lincoln he was shot down from the height of his powers leaving America to speculate about how the events of the late 20th Century would have unfolded if was not assassinated.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
She was among the most glamorous First Ladies in American History. Young ladies and women copied her clothes, her hairstyle, and her elegance and grace. Her devotion to her young children was admired. But she is remembered most of all by her courage and grace at a time of personal and national tragedy. "Jackie," as she was called, was born into the wealthy Bouvier family on July 28, 1929 in Southampton, New York. While working for a Washington DC, newspaper, she met the handsome congressman, JFK. They married in 1953. After Kennedy became President in 1961, the First Lady made the White House a center of American culture. She supervised its redecoration with period furnishings and invited famous artists to perform there. Jack and Jackie brought to the White House an enchanting elegance and a conviction that all things were possible if dealt with intelligently and hard work. Then, in November 1963, that world ended. She was at the President's side in a limousine in Dallas when he was assassinated. The image of the stunned First Lady in her blood-splattered suit will never be forgotten by those who saw it. Her dignity and strength in the days that followed eased the nation's grief. When interviewed all that stuck in her head was a line from her husband's favorite song "...Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for brief shining moment that was known as Camelot." A second marriage to Aristotle Onassis, a wealthy Greek ship owner, was unsuccessful. She moved to New York, where she worked as a book editor. She died in 1994, mourned by the nation she had represented with dignity.

When the Kennedys visited France in 1962, the President joked, "I am known as the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris." For more on Jackie please refer to her biography. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage
  2. Reeves, Richard. Kennedy: Profile of Power, Volumes I and II
  3. Dallek, Robert. John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life
  4. Schlesinger, Arthur M. 1,000 Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House

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