Biographies & Memoirs

Political Beginnings

For a man who would one day enjoy widespread popularity as President of the United States, the success of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s first sortie into campaign politics was far from assured. The 11th Congressional District of Massachusetts, being a largely working-class area, was not the most familiar arena for the privileged progeny of a multi-millionaire businessman. In addition, Kennedy’s complete lack of experience in local politics made matters more difficult.

As is always the case in the political arena, his rivals were only too willing to denigrate the newcomer. ‘This candidate has never held public office,’ declared one of his nine opponents, ‘he is registered at the Hotel Bellevue in Boston, and I daresay he has never slept there. He comes from New York. His father is a resident of Florida. This candidate […] knows nothing about the problems of its people.’

Moreover, it wasn’t just his political adversaries who were vocal in their detraction of his candidacy – some of the local newspapers also took umbrage at this interloper. The East-Boston Leader, for example, published this damagingly satirical advert, lampooning Jack’s candidature: ‘Congress seat for sale – No experience necessary – Applicant must live in New York or Florida – Only millionaires need apply.’

However, Jack’s combined Fitzgerald-Kennedy name helped to counter this negative press in some quarters, as both his grandfathers were well liked in the Massachusetts State political community. Kennedy also emphasized his war-hero reputation and positioned himself as a committedadvocate of war veterans.

His campaign also tapped into the issues of most concern to the constituents of the 11th District. Recognizing that his family’s wealth alienated him from a significant part of the blue-collar electorate, Kennedy worked to bridge this gap by promising more jobs, higher wages, improved Social Security and better housing.

While Jack was busy on the campaign trail promising to raise the minimum wage to 65 cents an hour, Joe Sr was, somewhat ironically, equally busy behind the scenes, pumping vast amounts of cash into his son’s election bid. It is estimated that as much as $300,000 of Kennedy money changed hands in the run-up to the election, much of it as underhand cash payments to oil the creaky cogs of the local political machine.

Nevertheless, much of the credit for the success of his campaign lay with Kennedy himself. Much to his surprise, and indeed that of his father, the young Kennedy greatly enjoyed his time out on the hustings. He was unfazed by his opponents’ attacks on his character – indeed, if anything, the rough and tumble of campaign politics appealed to the competitive side of his nature. Overcoming his innate shyness, he grew more confident with every speech he gave. Soon, just as it had done at school and in the navy, his quiet natural charisma earned him many admirers.

This broadening fan-base supported him at the ballot boxes. He gained 40.5 per cent of the votes, and won the Democratic Party’s nomination, after which his victory over the Republican candidate was a matter of course. In a State populated predominantly by Democrats, the twenty-nine-year-old defeated his main rival 69,093 votes to 26,007 in the general election on 5 November 1946.

The journey to the White House had begun.

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