Some people remember John F. Kennedy as a charismatic man of privilege, the hero of Camelot, coasting his way to the U.S. presidency, living the glamorous life until the day of his assassination. But the reality was not so straightforward. JFK was not even his father's first choice to be Kennedy presidential material, his academic record was less than stellar, and he received last rites three times prior to his election to the executive office.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, also known as Jack, was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Both of his parents were from wealthy and powerful Irish-Catholic families in Boston.
Kennedy's mother, Rose Fitzgerald, was a Boston debutante. His father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., made his fortune in the stock market, then served as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Ambassador to Great Britain. He was unusually involved in the lives of his nine children, encouraging them to enter competitions and expecting nothing less than first-place triumphs.
Kennedy's early years were less than promising. He was a poor student, more interested in making mischief than earning good grades at his Connecticut boarding school. He was often ill during childhood, suffering from severe colds, flu, undiagnosed conditions, and even scarlet fever. Reportedly, he almost died.
At Choate, an elite Connecticut prep school, Kennedy continued to be a mediocre student, focusing on mischief, sports, and girls.
Despite his academic record, Kennedy was accepted at Princeton in 1935. He was forced to leave during his first semester, however, due to gastrointestinal problems that landed him in the hospital. He completed his college career at Harvard, studying hard in the last two years and graduating in 1940.
For his senior thesis, he wrote about why Britain was unprepared to fight against Germany in World War II. Because the paper was so well-received, it was expanded and published in 1940 as "Why England Slept." The book sold over 80,000 copies.
Kennedy's military career was nearly over before it began. Due to problems with his digestive system and his back, he was initially rejected by both the Army and the Navy officer candidate schools. However, he managed to use his father's connections - indeed, a mark of privilege - to gain entrance into the Navy in 1941, just a few months before the United States joined World War II.
Kennedy commanded a patrol torpedo boat in the South Pacific. On August 2, 1943, the PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese warship, splitting the vessel in two. Two sailors died on the scene. Kennedy suffered back injuries but managed to save another sailor, clenching the strap of the man's life vest in his teeth. The men swam to the relative safety of a nearby island, where they were rescued six days later. Kennedy was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his actions. He was released from active duty in 1944.
Sadly, Kennedy's older brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., did not fare as well. He was killed in action in August of 1944. Their father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., had always imagined his namesake would become the first Catholic U.S. president; upon Joe's death, he placed this obligation on the shoulders of his next oldest son, John.
Kennedy briefly worked as a reporter for Hearst Newspapers, covering a United Nations conference in San Francisco and the aftermath of World War II in Europe, but he soon abandoned thoughts of a career in journalism to pursue his political destiny.
Last Rites But Not Final Days
Kennedy cared about physical fitness, to the point of carrying a bathroom scale with him when he traveled, to monitor his weight. "Physical fitness," he once said, "is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity." Unfortunately, Kennedy did not enjoy a life of good health.
In 1947, during a trip to England, he fell ill and was diagnosed with Addison's disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands; he was given about a year to live. Returning to the U.S. on the Queen Mary, he became so ill that a priest was summoned to perform last rites.
In 1951, during a trip to Asia, he suffered from a high fever. A priest was summoned once again to perform last rites.
Yet again, in 1954, following back surgery and a subsequent infection, Kennedy fell into a coma. A priest was summoned for the third time to perform last rites.
Kennedy survived all of these close calls, however, enabling him to travel the path envisioned for him by his father.
In 1946, the 29 year-old Kennedy sought and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing a working-class district in Boston. He served three terms, ending in 1952, but found the work dull.
With his father's financial backing and his younger brother Robert as his campaign manager, John F. Kennedy successfully challenged the Republican incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge, for his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952. Kennedy served in the senate for eight years, but he was still bored by domestic issues. He had always been more interested in international affairs.
Kennedy was nearly selected as the running mate for Adlai Stevenson in his 1956 bid for the presidency, but ultimately Ested Kefauver was chosen.
At last, in 1960, Kennedy garnered the Democratic nomination for the presidency, just as his father had long wished. Some expressed concern that a Catholic president might answer to the Pope before he answered to his constituents. Kennedy responded, "I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office." He continued, "I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters - and the church does not speak for me."
He participated in a series of debates against Richard M. Nixon, his Republican opponent. Interestingly, television viewers thought Kennedy won the debates, while radio listeners thought Nixon performed better. Kennedy commented, "Do you realize the responsibility I carry? I'm the only person standing between Richard Nixon and the White House."
On November 8, 1960, Kennedy defeated Nixon by a narrow margin, becoming the youngest man ever elected president of the United States.
In his inaugural speech in 1961, Kennedy spoke the now-famous words, "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Early in his presidency, Kennedy had opportunities to focus on foreign affairs. He suffered political embarrassment early in 1961, when a covert mission to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, failed and resulted in many casualties. "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan," Kennedy commented.
Also in 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered construction of the Berlin Wall, to stop emigration from Soviet East Germany to West Germany, via Berlin. The wall became a symbol of the Cold War, with the ever-present risk of a nuclear attack. In a 1961 news conference, Kennedy said this of Khrushchev: "Khrushchev reminds me of the tiger hunter who has picked a place on the wall to hang the tiger's skin long before he has caught the tiger. This tiger has other ideas."
Kennedy visited Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall on June 26, 1963, then gave a stirring speech to the citizens of West Berlin. He said, "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner!'"
Some people, whether misinformed or seeking to stir up controversy, have claimed that the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner,' translate as, 'I am a jelly donut.' But, in the context of Kennedy's speech, the phrase means that he, along with all free people in the world, is a kindred spirit with the citizens of Berlin.
In 1962 Kennedy learned that the Soviets had sent ballistic nuclear missiles to Cuba. Kennedy blockaded the island to defend the United States, then the world watched and worried that nuclear war might erupt. The Soviet Union eventually agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, in exchange for Kennedy's promise to not invade Cuba and to remove American missiles from Turkey.
In 1963 the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union negotiated a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, helping to ease Cold War tensions. Kennedy used seventeen pens to sign four copies of the formal instrument of ratification.
Kennedy addressed a number of domestic issues during his term in office. He attempted to lower taxes, raise the minimum wage, and improve education, health care, and mass transit - all with limited success.
He did make progress on a more far-reaching goal, however - working to send astronauts to the moon. He said, "In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
Surprisingly, in a 1963 address to the United Nations Assembly, Kennedy envisioned joining with the Soviets rather than continuing the space race. He said, "Why should man's first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction and expenditure?"
One of Kennedy's final acts as president was sending a civil rights bill to Congress. The bill, known as the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964.
On September 12, 1953, Kennedy married socialite Jacqueline Bouvier, whom he had met at a dinner party. The two made a glamorous couple, perfectly suited for the political arena.
The Kennedy era was later referred to as an idyllic "Camelot," but the reality was less than ideal. The two appeared happy and Kennedy was, at the time, the wealthiest man ever to be elected president, but behind the scenes there were rumored affairs, health issues, and lives cut short.
The couple had four children: Arabella, stillborn in 1956; Caroline, born in 1957; John, Jr., born in 1960; and Patrick, born prematurely in 1963, surviving for only two days. John, Jr., would perish, along with his new wife, in a plane crash in 1999.
John F. Kennedy's Final Day
Kennedy once said, "If anyone is crazy enough to want to kill a president of the United States, he can do it. All he must be prepared to do is give his life for the president's." On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine with alleged Soviet sympathies, accepted that challenge. As Kennedy and his wife traveled by motorcade, waving at the Dallas citizens who had gathered to see them, Oswald shot Kennedy in the head from the Texas School Book Depository building.
Conspiracy theories persist, but most experts believe that Oswald acted alone. There had been at least four other assassination attempts during Kennedy's term in office.
Oswald himself was fatally shot, during a transfer between jails, by a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby.
Hundreds of thousands of people stood in line for hours during the public visitation, waiting to pay their respects. An eternal flame burns at the grave site of John F. Kennedy, at Arlington National Cemetery, per the request of his widow.
While JFK was the youngest man ever elected to the office of the presidency, beginning his term at the age of 43 years and 7 months, he was not the youngest to serve. Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, at the age of 42 years and 10 months, following the assassination of President William McKinley.
JFK was the first president to dance with black women at his inaugural ball.
Throughout his political career, Kennedy quietly donated his salary to charity.
As a fan of James Bond thrillers, Kennedy once tried to write a spy novel of his own, involving a coup d'etat spearheaded by his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson.
Kennedy's back problems were due, in part, to the fact that one of his legs was shorter than the other.
The day before he ordered a ban on Cuban imports, Kennedy bought 1,200 fine Cuban cigars.
As of 2015, John F. Kennedy is the youngest U.S. president to die, in or out of office. Following his death, the Canadian Government named a mountain in his honor - the highest unclimbed mountain in Canada at the time.
In 1965, Robert Kennedy, younger brother of JFK, was part of the first team to climb Mount Kennedy. But just three years later, in 1968, Robert Kennedy would also die from an assassin's bullet.
Camelot exists no more, if it ever did, but the Kennedy legacy remains. As John F. Kennedy once said, "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on."