Skip over navigation

John F. Kennedy

The Star Senator

The Rising Politician

To the Presidency

JFK's first year as a senator was pivotal not for political reasons, but for personal ones. In the spring of 1951 he had met Jacqueline Bouvier, the daughter of a wealthy New York family. By the time JFK's victorious Senate campaign ended, the two were actively courting, and on September 12, 1953, they were married with fine Catholic pomp in Newport, Rhode Island. His new wife, now Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (known as "Jackie") would become one of the most famous wives in United States history. Beautiful and glamorous, she had studied at Vassar and the Sorbonne, and brought an element of culture and class to the marriage that would become one of the defining traits of the Kennedy Presidency. Jackie's family, like the Kennedys, were Catholic immigrants, but they had come to America and made their fortune much earlier, in the mid-19th century. Having achieved financial success, Jackie's grandfather went so far as to fabricate a noble pedigree for the family in order to boost their social standing. Jackie's father, unfortunately, was a less impressive figure–nicknamed "Black Jack" Bouvier, he was a womanizer, a rogue, and a financial failure. Marrying into the Kennedy clan, then, offered Jackie Kennedy a sense of wealth and security that had been denied her during her childhood.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunts were still going strong, intimidating even the popular new president, Dwight Eisenhower. JFK's relationship with the Wisconsin senator had cooled somewhat, but he still refrained from joining the few voices willing to speak out against McCarthy. Eventually, though, the witch-hunts self-destructed, after a disastrous attempt by McCarthy to take on the U.S. Army. On December 2, 1954, the U.S. Senate officially censured McCarthy, by a vote of 67 to 22. JFK was listed as absent–he was in the hospital again, undergoing back surgery.

Overall, JFK's record during the McCarthy era was mixed. He opposed some of McCarthy's more extreme attempts to curb civil liberties, but in general, he voted with the Wisconsin senator on most issues. Nevertheless, it is difficult to blame JFK–McCarthy held immense influence for a time, and he attracted strong support among the working class Irish Catholics who had voted JFK into the Senate in the first place. In failing to criticize McCarthy early on, JFK was no more blameworthy than most of the other politicians of the era.

On other issues, though, JFK mustered more political bravery. He supported the controversial St. Lawrence Seaway, which many Massachusetts politicians argued would cripple New England's shipping industry. He also spoke presciently about Southeast Asia, where the French were trying desperately to hold on to their colony in Vietnam. "No amount of military assistance in Indochina," he warned, "can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, 'an enemy of the people' which has the sympathy and covert support of the people." It was a warning that he himself was to ignore once he assumed the presidency.

Back surgery and complications from Addison's Disease–about which condition the general public was unaware–made JFK an invalid during parts of 1954 and 1955. But he used the time profitably, conceiving a new book about famous U.S. Senators who had exhibited great political courage. Eventually entitled Profiles in Courage, the book was written in 1955 and published in early 1956, receiving a warm reception from the critics. With its introductory declaration that "in the days ahead, only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival," Profiles in Courage cemented JFK's reputation as an intellectual, a thinking man's politician, and made him a darling of the New York and Washington press. Accusations that the book had been ghostwritten were brushed aside.

Today, however, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that while the idea may have been JFK's, the execution was mainly the work of Theodore Sorensen, one of his aides. "The concept of the book was Kennedy's," Sorensen would say later. "The responsibility for the book was Kennedy's." The writing, meanwhile, save parts of the introduction and of the last chapter, was Sorensen's. At the time of publication, though, none of this was known, and the handsome, intellectual Senator Kennedy found himself the Democratic Party's rising star. At the 1956 convention, when Adlai Stevenson was nominated to run against the popular Eisenhower once more, JFK was very nearly nominated as the Democratic candidate for Vice- President (at that time, Vice-Presidents were chosen by convention balloting, not by the presidential candidates). JFK fell short on the third ballot by only two hundred votes out of over thirteen hundred. The defeat was probably a blessing, however, as Eisenhower steamrolled Stevenson in the general election, and JFK emerged with his reputation intact and his prospects bright for 1960.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us