In surveys and on lists, John Fitzgerald Kennedy ranks right up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as one of America's greatest presidents. Had Mount Rushmore been sculpted a few decades later, there's little doubt Kennedy's face would adorn that South Dakota mountainside.
But in this opinion, the public deeply disagrees with many historians who find JFK's record too short and too mediocre to really stack up against the greats. So why is JFK so popular? Mainly because his story possesses three determinants that engrave certain celebrities so deeply into the collective consciousness that their fame can never fade: good looks, charisma and an early, tragic death.
These, along with the following factors, have conspired to bump JFK up into the top tier of U.S. leaders.
- He was the youngest president ever elected.
- He was the first Catholic ever elected president.
- He's the only president ever awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
- He was really good at giving speeches.
- He helped us survive the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- He launched the Space Race.
- He started the Peace Corps.
- He was assassinated while in office.
JFK Vital Stats
Born: May 29, 1917, Brookline, Massachusetts
Education: Choate boarding school and Harvard University
Military Service: U.S. Navy, World War II, Pacific Theater
Political Offices: U.S. Representative for Massachusetts; Massachusetts Senator; U.S. President
Died: Nov. 22, 1963, Dallas, Texas, age 46
Kennedy's Childhood and Education
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born into a prominent Massachusetts family of Irish-American Catholics. He was the second child and the second son. His middle name was his mother's maiden name and it was given to him to honor his maternal grandfather, John Francis ("Honey Fitz") Fitzgerald, who had served as mayor of Boston.
His father, Joseph Kennedy Sr. was an enormously successful businessman who had high ambitions for his children. From the time JFK's older brother, Joseph Jr. was born, Joe Sr. marked him for U.S. president.
In grade school and high school, JFK wasn't quite what you'd consider an outstanding student. That's not to say he wasn't smart — he just wasn't very motivated. But in his last two years at Harvard he decided to apply himself and the results were impressive.
His senior year thesis about England's failed strategy of appeasement in the lead-up to World War II ended up being published as a book titled, "Why England Slept."
JFK the War Hero
During World War II, Kennedy tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but an old football injury to his back made him ineligible. Thanks to his father's connections, he was able to sign up for the Navy. In some ways, this made more sense anyway — he was an excellent sailor and an elite swimmer, which would come in handy during the war.
In the Pacific Theater, JFK was assigned the command of a patrol torpedo (PT) boat with the mission of sinking Japanese military boats. But instead, it was JFK's PT boat that was sunk when a Japanese ship ran over it. JFK and his surviving crew swam miles to a nearby island. One of the crewmembers was so badly injured he couldn't swim, so JFK towed him, clenching the man's lifejacket strap between his teeth.
JFK's Early Political Career
After the war, JFK worked briefly as a reporter before turning his attention to politics. His brother Joe Jr., who was a pilot during the war, had died in an explosion while flying between England and France. Although crushed by this blow, Joe Sr. hadn't given up his ambition of putting one of his sons in the White House.
He started by persuading JFK to run for U.S. Congress in Massachusetts. Kennedy was elected easily. In 1953 he ran for senator and won that position as well. JFK's congressional career is not considered to be outstanding, but thanks to his good looks, charisma and rhetorical skills (not to mention his father's wealth) he was able to position himself as a potential presidential candidate.
Jack's Marriage to Jackie
Young John met Jacqueline (Jackie) Bouvier at a dinner party in 1952, where he "leaned across the asparagus and asked her on a date," as he would later say. They married in 1953. Like John, Jackie was from a wealthy Catholic family. And like him she was both good-looking and bookish.
When, some years later, they visited Paris together, Jackie's charm and fluent French endeared her to their hosts. John famously said he would be remembered as the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.
But unlike JFK, Jackie was an unworldly 24-year-old when she married her extremely worldly 36-year-old husband. By that time, he had been involved in many relationships with many different women. Much to Jackie's distress, after their marriage, he would continue to carry on numerous extramarital affairs. The couple's first child, Caroline, was born in 1957 while JFK was still a senator. Jackie gave birth to their second child, John Jr., during the first year of JFK's presidency.
John F. Kennedy Becomes President
JFK narrowly defeated Richard Nixon in the presidential race of 1960. During the campaign, the two men squared off in the nation's first televised presidential debates. Nixon, who was recovering from a recent hospitalization, appeared unshaven, unwell and nervous on TV, whereas JFK came across as relaxed and poised. Many people believe this television appearance was a turning point that helped JFK secure victory.
When JFK came into office, he learned that the CIA was planning an invasion of Cuba. Two years earlier, in 1958, revolutionaries had overthrown the island's corrupt regime and established a new government under the leadership of Fidel Castro.
Fearing that Castro had communist sympathies, the CIA decided to back a group of exiled Cubans in a bid to instigate a counter-revolution. JFK agreed to let the invasion go ahead. The invading force landed on a beach known as the Bay of Pigs and was summarily defeated by the revolutionary forces. For JFK, it was an embarrassing fiasco that made for a poor beginning to his presidency. It was also an augur of things to come. Cuba would be a problem that dogged his term in office.
Fidel Castro was convinced that the Bay of Pigs did not mark the end of U.S. plans to overthrow his government. He was right. JFK's administration fully intended to get rid of Castro by any means possible.
Castro's legitimate fears pushed him into a closer alliance with the Soviet Union. The head of the Soviet Union, Nikita Krushchev was displeased that the U.S. had placed nuclear weapons close to his borders. In a tit-for-tat move, he decided to take advantage of Cuba's estrangement from the U.S. by installing a few nuclear weapons of his own on the Caribbean island in his enemy's backyard.
When JFK learned of this in 1962, he faced the biggest crisis of his administration. Rather than blow up the installations, or launch a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, as some of his military advisers wished, he chose to impose a naval blockade, preventing Soviet ships from transporting any more weaponry to Cuba.
For 13 days the world teetered on the brink of thermonuclear annihilation as the two countries faced off. Finally, Krushchev agreed to remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for the U.S. promising not to invade Cuba. In a secret deal, the U.S. also agreed to withdraw their own nuclear weaponry from Turkey. The global community breathed a sigh of relief and in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK spearheaded a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that became one of the highlights of his presidency.
JFK's record on civil rights is mixed. While he helped secure Martin Luther King Jr.'s release from prison during the campaign of 1960, once in the White House he feared losing the backing of southern democrats who virulently opposed equal rights for African Americans. But after the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech galvanized public opinion, JFK began to reconsider his position.
In 1962, he authorized the use of the National Guard to ensure that James Meredith could become the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi, despite violent opposition by white supremacists. A short time before he died, JFK finally sent civil rights legislation to Congress. But it would be his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who ushered the landmark Civil Rights Bill through Congress and signed it into law.
Kennedy Is Assassinated in Dallas
On Nov. 22, 1963, JFK and Jackie were waving to the crowds that lined the street in Dallas, Texas, as they rode through town in the backseat of a 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible limousine with the top down.
At 12:30 p.m., Kennedy and Jackie, Texas Governor John Connally, and Connally's wife Nellie entered Dealey Plaza. Two shots were fired from the Texas School Book Depository, hitting President Kennedy and Governor Connally. JFK was mortally wounded by multiple gunshots. A short time later died of his injuries. Governor Connally survived.
The police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-marine with communist sympathies and charged him with the assassination. As he was being transported to a car in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters, Oswald was shot and killed by a man named Jack Ruby. The shooting was broadcast live on television.
The assassination of JFK was one of the most shocking events of the era. Most people who were alive then can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. The large-scale Warren Commission investigated JFK's assassination, concluding that Oswald acted alone. But conspiracy theories have always surrounded Kennedy's death, including one that there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, and even that the government or organized crime was involved in his killing.
In 2017, the U.S. government declassified 10,000-plus documents relating to the investigation in to JFK's assassination. The documents confirmed some theories that the CIA was planning to hire the mob to assassinate Castro, and that the FBI received a death threat against Lee Harvey Oswald the day before he was killed. The FBI also knew Oswald communicated with a Russian KGB agent before Kennedy's assassination. But even the mass document declassification hasn't stopped people from speculating that Oswald was part of a conspiracy, or that he wasn't even the gunman at all.