John Kennedy: A Political Profile

John Kennedy: A Political Profile

by James MacGregor Burns

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The authorized biography of John F. Kennedy offers a fresh and candid look at what shaped the man America came to love and admire, just as he was on the cusp of the presidency

Historian, political scientist, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author James MacGregor Burns wrote Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, the first volume of his highly acclaimed biography of FDR, in 1956. Two years later, Burns ran for a seat in Congress and became close friends with John F. Kennedy, who was also campaigning throughout the state for reelection to the Senate. After Burns lost his election, he decided to write a biography of JFK. Without any restrictions, Kennedy granted his friend complete access to files, family records, and personal correspondence. The two men spoke at great length in Washington, DC, and at the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod, and afterwards, Kennedy asked his relatives, friends, and political colleagues to talk openly with Burns as well. The result is a frank, incisive, and compelling portrait of Kennedy from his youth to his service in World War II and his time in Congress.

While many political biographies—especially those of presidential candidates—intend to depict a certain persona, Burns would not allow anything other than his own perception to influence him. And so, John Kennedy concludes questioning whether JFK would make “a commitment not only of mind, but of heart” to the great challenges that lay ahead. (Burns would later admit that his subject did bring both bravery and wisdom to his presidency.) First published just as Kennedy was coming into the national spotlight, this biography gives a straightforward and exciting portrayal of one of the twentieth century’s most important figures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504034388
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 03/29/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 298
Sales rank: 759,741
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

James MacGregor Burns (1918–2014) was a bestselling American historian and political scientist whose work earned both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Born in Boston, Burns fell in love with politics and history at an early age. He earned his BA at Williams College, where he returned to teach history and political science after obtaining his PhD at Harvard and serving in World War II. Burns’s two-volume biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt is considered the definitive examination of the politician’s rise to power, and his groundbreaking writing on the subject of political leadership has influenced scholars for decades. Most recently, he served as the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College and as Distinguished Leadership Scholar at the University of Maryland.
James MacGregor Burns (1918–2014) was a bestselling American historian and political scientist whose work earned both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Born in Boston, Burns fell in love with politics and history at an early age. He earned his BA at Williams College, where he returned to teach history and political science after obtaining his PhD at Harvard and serving in World War II. Burns’s two-volume biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt is considered the definitive examination of the politician’s rise to power, and his groundbreaking writing on the subject of political leadership has influenced scholars for decades. Most recently, he served as the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College and as Distinguished Leadership Scholar at the University of Maryland. 

Read an Excerpt

John Kennedy

A Political Profile

By James MacGregor Burns


Copyright © 1961 James MacGregor Burns
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3438-8



On a magnificent height rising steeply from the Blackwater River in southern Ireland stands Lismore Castle, built eight centuries ago by King John. Here in 1185 the archbishops and bishops of Ireland paid allegiance to the English invaders. Three centuries later, the castle passed into the hands of Sir Walter Raleigh, and, more recently, surviving fire and siege, came into the possession of the Dukes of Devonshire.

One August morning in 1947, a wealthy and engaging young American congressman, son of the former Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, drove off from Lismore Castle on an exploration back into time. He carried with him a letter from an aunt in America giving directions to the old family home in New Ross, fifty miles east of Lismore. At his side in his American station wagon sat an English lady from the company at the castle. Through the soft green countryside along the southeastern coast of Ireland and across the bottom tip of Kilkenny County they motored on to the market town of New Ross, settled on the banks of the Barrow River.

An Irishman standing on the road into town knew where the Kennedys lived — "just up the way a hundred yards and turn to the right." And there it was — an ordinary farm cottage with thatch roof, whitewashed walls, and dirt floor. They found a farmer and his wife and their half-dozen bright, towheaded children.

"I'm John Kennedy from Boston," the young congressman said, sticking out his hand. "I believe this is the old Kennedy homestead." The farmer and his wife greeted him cordially while the children stared at the gleaming station wagon. The New Ross Kennedys knew little, it seemed, about their American cousins. But they remembered a Patrick Kennedy from Boston — John Kennedy's grandfather — who had visited them some thirty-five years before.

"It sounded from their conversation as if all the Kennedys had emigrated," Kennedy said later. "I spent about an hour there surrounded by chickens and pigs, and left in a flow of nostalgia and sentiment. This was not punctured by the English lady turning to me as we drove off and saying, 'That was just like Tobacco Road!' She had not understood at all the magic of the afternoon...."

They drove back to the castle where Kennedy and his sister, the widowed Marchioness of Hartington, daughter-in-law of the Duke of Devonshire, were host and hostess to an aristocratic company that included Anthony Eden, later prime minister, Mrs. Randolph Churchill, the Earl of Roselyn, and various political and literary figures.

For Kennedy, the trip back to Lismore Castle that day took hardly two hours. For his family, that trip had taken a hundred years. First there had been a long journey across the Atlantic. Then had come the hardest and longest move of all — inching up the rungs of the American class ladder until the Kennedys stood near the top and could look as equals on the dukes and earls whose ancestors had ruled their native land.

To the Land of the Shanties

A century before, New Ross had been a place of troubles. During the early 1840's, the Irish were depending more than ever on their potato crop, which at best barely tided the cottiers' families from one year to another. But something was wrong with the all-important potato — a blight that rotted the tubers in the ground and even seemed to reach them in the storehouse. In 1845 Ireland lost almost half its potato crop. "If the next crop fails us," a peasant said, "it will be the end of the world for us." The crop did fail. The blight rotted the potatoes with terrifying speed — in a single night, some said. A priest traveling from Cork to Dublin one day rejoiced at the rich harvest in the making; returning a week later he saw "one wide waste of putrefying vegetation."

Misery lay on the land like a pall. Some families took to the road, wandering from blighted field to blighted field, leaving the old and the young dying in the ditches. Others waited quietly in their cottages to die. Some survived near-starvation to perish of typhus, which was spreading through the drifting population. Others had only one dream — to leave this land on which God seemed to have laid a curse and escape to another country, to America, land of gold and milk and honey. Men fished their last sovereigns from the secret places in the thatch; women pawned their pewter and plate; families loaded their belongings into carts and trundled down to crowded quays to wait for the next steamer. Even their priests were urging them to go. Some farmers had no choice; the landlords' bailiffs, encouraged by the harsh Poor Law, evicted them and knocked down their cottages with crowbars so they could not creep back.

When the flight from famine was at its peak, young Patrick Kennedy deserted his thatch-roofed home in New Ross and joined the great migration of the hungry and the helpless. Doubtless he boarded a Cunarder at Cork or Liverpool and crossed the Atlantic in the crowded steerage. He was lucky to be able to raise the fare — $20, including provisions — and lucky, too, to avoid the epidemics that sometimes decimated the shiploads of immigrants on the long passage.

Years before, the Cunard Line had fixed its western terminus at Noddle's Island in East Boston, lying across a narrow arm of Boston Harbor. On this island Pat Kennedy settled about 1850. It was a busy, noisy place; Cunard was building piers and warehouses; Irish laborers and stevedores were flocking in to look for work; a steam ferry plowed across the bay every five minutes and brought ten or more thousand passengers a day for a two-cent fare. Soon Pat had found a job as a cooper.

Pat Kennedy was in Boston to stay, but many an Irishman took one look at the city and wanted to catch the next Cunarder back to the old sod. Immigrant Boston was a forbidding land. If they could find a place to lay their heads at all, the newcomers were crowded in with the old; often they lived in cellars flooded from backed-up drains, or in garrets only three feet high. About the time Pat Kennedy came to Boston, hundreds of basements housed five to fifteen persons each, with at least one holding thirty-nine every night. One sink might serve a house, one privy a neighborhood. Filth spread through courts and alleys, and with it tuberculosis, cholera, and smallpox, which thrived most in the poorest districts where the Irish lived.

To be sure, by working on the docks or elevators or freight yards, a man could make a quicker dollar here than back home. But prices were high, too, and families could not keep a pig or cow or garden in tenement Boston. And work was hard — usually fifteen hours a day seven days a week, with no Sabbath and none of the pastoral pleasures of farm life.

The Irish were the lowest of the low, lower than the Germans or Scandinavians or Jews, or even the Negroes, who had come earlier and edged a bit up the economic ladder. Irishmen were lucky if they could find part-time work on the dock or in the ditch; Irish girls hoped at best to get work as maids in hotels or in big houses on Beacon Hill. Around 1850, Irish transient paupers outnumbered the sum of all other nationalities. The people from Ireland were a proletariat without machine skills or capital. Their sections of Boston were the land of the shanty Irish.

The only defense the Irish had was the classic weapon of oppressed people — solidarity. Tighter and tighter they bound themselves with the thongs of their national identity. Thrown back on their families and neighborhoods, on their priests and wakes and churches, on their memories of life in Ireland, they grew fiercely independent of the Yankees and the others around them. "Unable to participate in the normal associational affairs of the community," says Oscar Handlin, the foremost historian of Boston's immigrants, "the Irish felt obliged to erect a society within a society, to act together in their own way. In every contact therefore the group ... became intensely aware of its peculiar and exclusive identity." Everything conspired to make this process easy — the brogue, the church, oppression in Ireland, and shared hardships in the migration and in the congested alleys of Boston.

As the newcomers solidified their loyal ranks, so did the other blocs. Tension deepened between the Irish and the skilled workmen of older national groups, as Germans, Scots, Englishmen, and Canadians saw their own wages cut by the new proletarians. John Kennedy was to say many years later: "Each wave disliked and distrusted the next. The English said the Irish 'kept the Sabbath and everything else they could lay their hands on'. The English and the Irish distrusted the Germans who 'worked too hard'. The English and the Irish and the Germans disliked the Italians; and the Italians joined their predecessors in disparaging the Slavs...."

One might have expected the Irish and Italians and other immigrants to unite against the Yankees, and to some extent they did. But coalition was not easy because of economic and social tensions between national groupings. They fought for jobs and for political recognition. The anti-Semitism of the Boston Irish stemmed from economic as well as from religious and cultural sources. Joseph Kennedy himself often made remarks that sounded anti-Semitic; they were the result of the fierce economic tensions of groups trying to work their way upward. The origin of this prejudice was suggested by the fact that the next generation of Kennedys — John's and Bob's generation — was free of such bias.

No group was more determined to maintain a wall between the Irish and itself than the Yankees. Apprehensive, soon to be outnumbered by the immigrants, the old stock withdrew increasingly into its own world and turned to the Protestant Brahmins for leadership.

On Noddle's Island, Pat Kennedy probably had little time to worry about such remote matters; he was busy making his way in this tight little community of longshoremen, laborers, and servants. Irishmen dominated the cooper's trade, doubtless because so many barrels of liquor ended up in Irishmen's saloons. Pat prospered a bit, married an Irish girl, and sired four children. The last, born in January 1862, was named Patrick J. Kennedy, and he was to become John Kennedy's grandfather. Soon after his birth, the father died, perhaps in one of the epidemics that still swept Boston.

Behind the Lace Curtain

How does a man break his way out of the world of the shanty Irish? One way was to sell things to his fellow Irishmen, build up a little capital, and perhaps open a shop or a saloon. Another way was to capture their votes and thus store up influence to trade in the political arena. Young Patrick J. Kennedy did both.

Things were hard at first. His mother had to go to work in a shop, leaving him at home with his three older sisters. For a time, Patrick attended a nearby school taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame and helped his mother at the store. But he soon turned to the Boston liquor trade, perhaps because his father had made contacts there. He started a saloon, and later branched out into the retail liquor business. Located across from an East Boston shipyard, the saloon attracted thirsty laborers on their way home from work. At night, Irishmen fled their dingy tenements and crowded into Pat Kennedy's bar, singing, joking, carousing, sometimes going out for a short bout of the fists.

Pat was a popular saloonkeeper, and he looked the part, with his stocky build and black handlebar mustaches. Standing behind the bar, he listened patiently to the latest gossip and complaints. Everyone knew Pat and he knew everyone. Loyal and generous to his kind, he helped many a fellow Irishman who was down on his luck. Increasingly he won the respect of the community. He was a soft-spoken man who never swore; the worst he had ever been heard to say about a man was, "He's a no-good loafer." He was a bit austere, too; he rarely lifted a glass himself, and he kept his blue eyes cocked on the bar to see that no one got noisily drunk in his establishment. Although he had never finished grammar school, he loved to read, and friends would often find him after hours, his glasses pushed up on his forehead, a book — usually an American history book — in his hands.

It was only natural that an Irish saloonkeeper like Pat would go into politics, just as "Big Tim" Sullivan did so successfully in the Bowery of New York and "Hinky Dink" Kenna in Chicago. For the main thing a man needed to rise in Boston politics was a big, devoted personal following. East Boston politics was a network of family, neighborhood, and religious ties, all bound together in loyalty to the party and the party leader. Pat's saloon became a rallying place, a caucus room, and a campaign headquarters.

Slowly during the early 1880's, Pat Kennedy built his influence throughout his ward. Like most city bosses, he stayed in the background and worked with his lieutenants in the back room. Even while campaigning for office, he rarely made speeches. He did not need to. Five years in a row in the late 1880's, he ran for state representative and won every time; then he moved up to the state senate. After that, he held various city jobs: fire commissioner, street commissioner, election commissioner. But Pat's chief concern was not holding office, but wielding power and the patronage that went with it. He wanted to run his ward — and he did. As the years passed, he became a member of the unofficial "Board of Strategy," a coalition of bosses who picked Democratic candidates and ran city affairs from the old Quincy House on Brattle Street. The most noted member of the Board of Strategy was Martin Lomasney, boss of famed Ward Eight, and a brilliant political organizer.

The '80's and '90's were the ideal time for Pat to enter politics, for the Irish were capturing almost complete control of the city government. Unlike most immigrant groups, they adapted themselves easily to urban politics. Most of them spoke English; they had learned the mechanics of politics in the old country; the democratic politics in America gave them the one road to power that the Yankees could not block. But beyond this the Irish simply loved city politics — the derbyhatted politicos and their blarney, the fast deals and double deals, the singing and fighting and laughing, the simmering hatreds and glowing friendships. At wakes and weddings, after mass or on the back stoop, the Irish endlessly played the intricate game of politics.

On the Board of Strategy, Pat came to know another young politician, John F. Fitzgerald, whose daughter one day would marry Pat's son. Fitzgerald had been born in 1863, not far from the Old North Church. He was raised in an eight-family tenement on lower Hanover Street. The third oldest of a brood of nine, he had, like Pat Kennedy, found life hard at first, for he had lost both parents by the time he was sixteen and had to help raise the younger members of the family. He secured a clerkship in the customhouse under the Brahmin blue blood Leverett Saltonstall, grandfather of Senator Saltonstall, and soon thereafter started running for office — for councilman, alderman, state legislator, United States congressman, and, finally, mayor of Boston.

In the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of Boston's Democratic factions, Kennedy and Fitzgerald were sometimes allies and sometimes foes, but they became good friends. They made a sharply contrasted pair. Pat was quiet, cautious, even a little severe, and not too much in the public eye; Fitzgerald was merry, ebullient, talkative, and usually willing to take a political dare.

Everywhere Fitzgerald went he filled the political life of Boston with fun and gusto. He loved to sing, and Bostonians would never forget "Honey Fitz" standing amid his cronies, his eyes sparkling, his florid face turned heavenward, his full cheeks puffed out, his sandy hair parted down the middle like an old-time vaudeville actor, singing his political theme song, "Sweet Adeline." He was the only man who could sing that song sober and get away with it, the Republican Boston Herald said. He loved to attend wedding parties, attired in top hat and morning coat, even if he had to crash them. Short, bouncy, quick, he was a master of political showmanship and techniques, adept, for example, at the "Irish switch," which consisted of pumping one person's hand while talking volubly to another, but he even improved on it by gazing fondly all the time at yet a third.


Excerpted from John Kennedy by James MacGregor Burns. Copyright © 1961 James MacGregor Burns. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Epigraph
  • Inauguration 1961—A Foreword
  • Preface
  • I Room at the Top
    • To the Land of the Shanties
    • Behind the Lace Curtain
    • Upward Bound
    • No Terrors at Home
  • II The Green Bloods
    • Canterbury and Choate
    • Harvard
    • Alone at the Top
  • III War and Peace
    • Why England Slept
    • “Jesus Loves Me”
    • War’s End
  • IV The Poor Little Rich Kid
    • Political Baptism
    • Free-for-All
    • Safe Seat
  • V The Gentleman from Boston
    • Bread-and-Butter Liberal
    • Defying the White House
    • A Subject of the Pope?
    • Kennedy as a Congressman
  • VI Green Blood versus Blue Blood
    • The Battle Joined
    • By the Left—or Right?
    • Battle of the Teacups
  • VII The Senator from New England
    • The Open Door
    • What’s the Matter with New England?
    • The Girl from Newport
  • VIII McCarthyism: The Issue That Would Not Die
    • Kennedy and the Liberals
    • On the Fence
    • “The Honor and Dignity of the Senate”
    • “A Reasonable Indictment”?
  • IX The Anatomy of Courage
    • Grace in a Vacuum
    • Profiles in Courage
    • The Meaning of Courage
  • X Vice-Presidential Politics
    • Fight for the Electoral College
    • Melee in Massachusetts
    • Who but Kennedy?
    • The First Hurrah
  • XI Senator from the United States
    • A Democrat Looks at Foreign Policy
    • Civil Rights: A Profile in Cowardice?
    • Hooverism and Housekeeping
  • XII Swinging for the Fences
    • Room 362
    • Home Run in Massachusetts
    • The Senate as Testing Ground?
    • “Victura”?
  • XIII Kennedy and the Catholics
    • Render unto Caesar?
    • Kennedy Takes His Stand
    • What Kind of Catholic?
    • “No Catholics Need Apply”?
  • XIV A Profile in Leadership
    • What Sort of Man?
    • What Sort of Democrat?
    • What Sort of President?
    • A Place of Moral Leadership?
  • Bibliographical Note
  • Chapter Notes
  • Index
  • About the Author

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