The Kennedy family of Massachusetts is perhaps the greatest symbol of the rise of the Irish in American political life. Descended from County Wexford potato farmers who emigrated during the Great Famine, the Kennedys rose in the Democratic Party to take power in the U.S. Senate and presidency. Their story is one of greatness marked by tragedy.
“Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald (1863–1950)
John Fitzgerald Kennedy's political path was first cleared by his maternal grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was born in 1863 to an Irish immigrant family. The son of a storekeeper, he quickly rose through the political ranks in Boston to serve as a U.S. congressman and as mayor of Boston. He was a popular mayor, particularly with Boston's large Irish community, but his administration was widely accused of corruption. He ran in campaigns for both the U.S. Senate and the governorship of Massachusetts, but never won. In his later years, he concentrated on steering the political careers of his increasingly influential family.
When Joseph Kennedy, the son of an immigrant saloonkeeper, asked Fitzgerald's daughter Rose to marry him, Honey Fitz refused the match; he thought that the Kennedys were beneath the Fitzgeralds. Rose Fitzgerald married Joe Kennedy anyway in 1915, and Joe soon demonstrated that he didn't think the Kennedys were beneath anyone. In fact, it would be difficult to find a more ambitious character in all of American history.
Joe Kennedy, Sr. (1888–1969)
Joseph Kennedy pursued a wide range of business interests, including finance, shipping, and motion-picture distribution. Historians generally agree that he made a lot of money by importing alcohol during Prohibition. He invested this money very skillfully: he rode the stock market boom of the 1920s, pulled out just before the great crash of 1929, then reinvested his money when stocks were at all-time lows. This fortune proved most useful for his family's political advancement.
Like his father-in-law, Joseph loved politics. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him the first chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission in 1934, reasoning that no one knew the tricks of financial manipulation better than Joseph Kennedy. In 1938 Joseph became the first Catholic Irish ambassador to Britain. He harbored presidential aspirations of his own, but his support for an isolationist policy during World War II hurt his political standing and cost him the ambassadorship. From that time on, he dedicated himself to the political careers of his sons — Joe, John (Jack), Bobby, and Ted.
The family's first hope was Joseph Kennedy, Jr., who was the oldest son. Joseph Jr. was tall, handsome, and brilliant; his father was determined to make him the first Irish-American president. Tragically, Joseph Jr. died in a bombing raid over Germany during World War II. The family's eyes then turned to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the second son.
JFK certainly had the Irish gift of the gab. In his inaugural address, he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” His word choice wasn't always so good, though; in a 1963 speech in Berlin he said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which literally means, “I am a doughnut.”
John F. Kennedy (1917–63)
John Kennedy, like his father and brothers, went to Harvard. He first came to prominence as a PT boat captain in World War II. After Kennedy's boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy organized his crew and led them to safety. His father's publicity machine turned Kennedy into a national hero. He used his fame and his father's money to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after the war, and in 1953 he advanced to the Senate.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Kennedy was a talented politician — charismatic, smart, and possessing an innate sense for how to use the media to his best advantage. He married the beautiful and sophisticated Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953.
In 1960 Kennedy ran for the U.S. presidency against the standing vice president, Richard Nixon. Kennedy still had to face the antiCatholic prejudice that had sunk the campaign of Al Smith in 1928, but he had two big advantages: his father had lots of money, and John looked great on television. He won in a close election, and in 1961 took office as the first Roman Catholic president. He was also the youngest U.S. president ever.
Kennedy's administration was marked by bold initiatives. He launched the Peace Corps and the Apollo Program, with the mission of putting a man on the moon within a decade (which was successful). His administration also oversaw dramatic foreign policy events, such as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Kennedy insisted that the Soviets remove their missiles from Cuba. After several tense days, the Soviets backed down. In 1963 Kennedy was talking about starting a national campaign to end poverty, but it was not to be. On November 22, 1963, an assassin's bullet ended Kennedy's life in a motorcade in Dallas.
Bobby (1925–68) and Ted (1932–present)
When JFK died, Kennedy family supporters turned to John's colleague and younger brother, Bobby. Robert “Bobby” Kennedy lacked his older brother's charisma, but he had at least as much passion. He had managed John's successful campaigns for the Senate and the presidency, and he served as U.S. attorney general in his brother's administration. In 1964, choosing not to continue with the Johnson administration, he ran for and won a Senate seat in New York state. He was considered a leading contender for the presidential race in 1968. Tragically, an assassin shot him in Los Angeles right after he had won the California primary.
With the three oldest Kennedy sons gone, eyes turned to the youngest son, Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Although he had earned a reputation as something of a playboy, Ted still managed to win his brother's old U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts in 1962, at the age of thirty. Since that time he has been re-elected to six more terms, most recently in 2000.
Many expected Teddy to become the next Kennedy president, but an accident in 1969 effectively ruined his chances. He was involved in a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, in which a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. Teddy left the scene and didn't call authorities until hours later. He managed to retain his seat in the Senate after the scandal, but lingering questions about the incident ruined his 1980 bid for the presidency.
Ted Kennedy has become known as one of the leading liberals in the Senate, focusing on issues such as health care and education. Unfortunately, in his younger days, he was known for his drinking and womanizing.