John F. Kennedy: The Making of a President


By Patrick AllittEmory University

John F. Kennedy brought charisma to the White House in 1961. His election showed that a Roman Catholic could win the nation’s highest office and contributed to a decline in inter-religious tensions in the United States of America. Kennedy’s family history and his personal attributes made him an attractive candidate and president.

Kennedy Nixon Debate in 1960
John F. Kennedy managed to win the election with a mere 118,000 votes. (Image: United Press International/Public domain)

An Ambitious Father

His father, Joe Kennedy, was a very wealthy man and ambitious on his own behalf and on behalf of his sons. Joe Kennedy schemed to make his oldest son president of the United States; his oldest son was Joseph Jr. During the war.

However, Joe Junior was killed in a plane crash. Then, the younger son, John F. Kennedy, became the focus of the father’s ambitions. He understood the enormous importance of money and publicity and of placing the candidate just right.

Gaining Political Power

Sure enough, John F. Kennedy did make rapid political gains. He was a freshman in Congress in 1946, and he had the advantage of a distinguished war record so that he was able to make rapid progress through the ranks of the Democrats.

In fact, he was the first of the lower-ranked World War II veterans to reach the White House. Obviously, his predecessor, Eisenhower, had been a general, whereas President Kennedy himself had been a junior officer.

John. F Kennedy in navy uniform
Being a World War II Navy veteran helped Kennedy find his way into Congress. (Image: Frank Turgeon Jr./Public domain)


While he was making his way up through the Democratic Party ranks in the mid-1950s, Kennedy also published a book called Profiles in Courage. It was published in 1956, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

The historian David Shi says “Washington critics at the time said he was showing more profile than courage in his campaigns, especially during the McCarthy era, when he made no attempt to denounce or distance himself from McCarthyism.”

After three terms in the House of Representatives, he became the junior Massachusetts senator in 1952. The next year, 1953, he married Jacqueline Bouvier, an elegant, beautiful, and very politically accomplished young woman from another political family of Massachusetts.

She, like Eleanor Roosevelt before her, had to tolerate her husband’s philandering. Today, Kennedy would have been in the same kind of trouble that Clinton was, or worse, but the press turned a blind eye to President Kennedy’s sexual affairs, just as it had turned a blind eye to Roosevelt’s. Those were days when the press was far more subservient to the White House’s demands.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Did Kennedy’s Catholicism Impact His Political Capabilities?

The great problem for Kennedy was overcoming the Catholic factor; he and his advisors were fully aware that Al Smith had lost severely in 1928 and that America had never had a Catholic president. They understandably worried about whether they were going to be able to overcome what looked like a rather severe obstacle. 

An organization called Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State declared that it was incompatible with American traditions to have a Catholic in the White House because he was going to take instruction from the pope and, therefore couldn’t be a free agent in making up his mind politically.

There was a widespread agreement that Kennedy’s religion was a genuine obstacle, even though for far more than a century, Catholics had sat in Congress and the Senate, had been state governors, mayors and Supreme Court justices. They’d played an active part in America’s political life without showing much sign of deference to the pope.

Kennedy’s Offer to Resign

In the end, Kennedy’s advisors got John Courtney Murray, an important Jesuit intellectual, to write a speech for Kennedy on the ways in which he distinguished between religious and political affairs, and he delivered it to the Houston Ministerial Association in the run-up to the 1960 election, a gathering of evangelical clergy. 

The central point of this speech was that if it ever came to the point where Kennedy found an absolute contradiction between his faith and his policy intentions, he’d resign, but he added, “I expect that any president would resign if he was unable to carry out the national policy without violating his conscience.”

The 1960 Presidential Election

Well, in the run-up to the election, not only did Kennedy have to deal with the Catholic question, he also had to defeat his Republican rival, and this was the sitting vice president, Richard Nixon, who had been Eisenhower’s vice president through the previous two terms. 

Well, when the election actually took place, it was extremely close; Nixon won more states but lost the overall vote by 118,000 votes, a loss, narrowly, in the Electoral College. Some of Nixon’s advisors actually encouraged him to challenge the election and demand a recount, but Nixon himself said the instability that would ensue would be alarming to the nation as a whole, and so he accepted the verdict with regret.

Common Questions about John F. Kennedy

Q: How did Kennedy succeed as a young politician?

After returning from the war, John F. Kennedy started his career in congress in 1946. His background as a successful veteran helped him climb the democratic ladder very quickly, so much so that in 1953, he became the junior Massachusetts senator.

Q: Did Kennedy’s catholicism influence his political decisions?

Kennedy quickly recognized and acknowledged his catholicism as an obstacle on his way to the white house. He knew that the general public wouldn’t elect a president who the pope might influence in making political decisions. To show his independence in making decisions, he delivered a speech to the Houston Ministerial Association, claiming that if there were ever a situation where he couldn’t conduct policy because of his religion, he would resign.

Q: How did Richard Nixon react to John F. Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 election?

Richard Nixon lost the battle to John F. Kennedy on a very close call. This made Nixon’s advisors encourage him to demand a recount. However, he believed the delay and instability caused by the recount would damage the nation. Thus, he accepted the verdict.

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