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The Kennedys | Article

The Kennedys in Politics

John F. Kennedy, 1959. Library of Congress.

The tide of political power was changing in Boston at the turn of the twentieth century. Irish ward bosses like John F. Fitzgerald and Patrick Joseph Kennedy were seizing power from the established classes. Boston’s mayors formerly had names like Quincy and Eliot. Now the winners had Irish names like Collins and Fitzgerald. Eloquent, persuasive, practical political brokers operating in the local networks of churches, taverns and clubs, these newcomers established a Boston power base that would ensure Irish control of city government for nearly a century — and launch an American political dynasty.

Political Grandfather
John F. Fitzgerald, nicknamed “Honey Fitz”, held a string of elected offices, beginning with a seat in the Massachusetts legislature in 1892. He served as mayor of Boston and in the U.S. House of Representatives over the course of twenty years. His daughter, Rose, would become the matriarch of Boston’s best-known political family — and Fitzgerald would live to see his grandson, John F. Kennedy, elected to Fitzgerald’s former seat in Congress.

A Kennedy on the National Stage
P. J. Kennedy’s ambitious son Joe, a successful banker, entered politics as a backer of New York governor and presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In return, Joe hoped for the cabinet position that would further his goal of becoming the first Catholic president. No cabinet position was offered. After two smaller governmental appointments and ceaseless lobbying, he was rewarded with the prized diplomatic ambassadorship to Great Britain in 1937. It was here that his political ambitions failed him. With Europe and America on the brink of war with Germany, his isolationist views on tolerating Adolf Hitler were seen as defeatist.

Ambitions for the Second Generation
Joe Kennedy soon transferred his political ambitions to his eldest son, Joe Jr. But before he could begin a political career, Joe Jr., a Navy pilot, was killed on a wartime mission. Joe now looked to his second son, John. Behind the scenes of John F. Kennedy’s first political campaign in 1946, Joe controlled everything, putting his great fortune to work.

Jack Kennedy, the millionaire’s son from Harvard, had the difficult job of being out on the street from early morning to late in the evening, making himself appealing to the many blue collar voters of Massachusetts’ Eleventh District. With an army of friends and family, Kennedy built a powerful political operation. The Kennedy women hosted lavish tea parties across the state, pulling in thousands of voters. The machine — and the charming young candidate’s ease with the new medium of television — helped John succeed. After three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives Kennedy won a seat in the U.S. Senate, and by 1960 he had become the first Irish Catholic ever elected to the White House.

Robert Kennedy campaigned tirelessly for his older brother John, then served as his attorney general. After his brother’s assassination in 1963, Robert resigned from his position as attorney general and was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York. He was running for president when he was assassinated in 1968.

John and Robert’s younger brother, Edward, was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1962, at the age of 30. He won re-election ever since, until his death from a brain tumor in 2009. His presidential hopes were probably destroyed by a fatal mistake in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts in 1969, when he drove his car off a bridge, killing a female passenger, then delayed reporting the crash. Ted unsuccessfully sought the 1980 Democratic nomination for the presidency against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Despite these failings, Ted Kennedy is, according to biographer Adam Clymer, “one of the greats in [Senate] history.”

Third Generation Kennedy Politicians
Joe and Rose’s grandchildren continue to seek political office. In 1995 the first Kennedy woman was elected to office, when Robert’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, became lieutenant governor of Maryland. Her brother Joseph represented Massachusetts in Congress for 12 years. And Ted Kennedy’s son, Patrick, has also built a political career. Initially elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1988, Patrick has represented Rhode Island in the U.S. House since 1995.

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