What should actually have made for perfect election campaign fodder, turned out to be one the biggest stumbling blocks of Kennedy’s 1960 presidential bid – his family history. There is nothing the American public loves more in a presidential candidate than a Ragged Dick style rags to riches story- the embodiment of the American Dream, and the Kennedys could certainly lay claim to that.
When the Irish potato famine of the 1840s sent hundreds of thousands of Irish across the Atlantic, the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys were amongst the impoverished droves who settled in Boston, with hope of a brighter tomorrow. Both families soon worked their way up the financial and political ladder; Jack’s maternal grandfather, »Honey Fitz«, became mayor of Boston and P. J. Kennedy, Jack’s paternal grandfather, was a highly successful businessman who also served in the Massachusetts Senate. Their children, Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, married in 1914 and it wasn’t long before Joe amassed his millions the stock market, Hollywood and in his (possibly somewhat dubious) dealings in the liquor trade.
So why did this epic tale of immigrant success not resonate with the voters of 1960? Well for a start, it was not the candidate himself who had put in the hard graft and worked his way up from next to nothing – in fact, a common complaint was that »Daddy’s money« played an instrumental role in young Jack’s election victories, with the accusation that votes were simply being bought instead of earned. Furthermore, Irish roots meant only one thing to many voters- Catholicism. Though Joe and Rose hoped that their children would not be subjected to the social stigma that they themselves had had to endure while growing up in Protestant Boston and while they strove ardently to Americanize their family, anti-Catholicism was still rife in the US. Voters feared that a Catholic president would hold a greater allegiance to the Vatican than to his country and have public policy dictated to him by the pope. Kennedy’s clearest refutation of these claims came when he gave an address in September 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, where he proclaimed, »the separation of church and state is absolute«. With this speech, he managed to dampen, though not fully extinguish, the anti-Catholic sentiment threatening to engulf his election campaign and went on to become the first Catholic president of the United States.
To view a full transcript (and video) of Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association please visit: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16920600
The first chapter of Robert Dallek’s comprehensive biography, »John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life«, contains more information on President Kennedy’s forefathers.