Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

John F. Kennedy: Public Perception and Campaign Strategy in 1946

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

John F. Kennedy: Public Perception and Campaign Strategy in 1946

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: Boston politics in the 1940s were replete with backroom dealmaking, cigar smoke, and corruption; it was a world of insiders. In 1946, John F. Kennedy took on this hostile realm in a bid for the United States Congress. Kennedy 's victory set his trajectory firmly on the path toward the White House. However, it was not Kennedy's unlimited coffers that propelled him into office; instead, it was his ability to shape public perception and outwork the other candidates, his innovations in campaign strategy, and his appeal as a naval war hero that swept him to electoral victory. The author argues that although money is an important factor in politics, it was not the determining factor in Kennedy's 1946 success.

The author's research draws on the extensive oral history collections of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. The Oral History Program's goal is to "collect, preserve, and make available interviews conducted with individuals who were in some way associated with John F. Kennedy and his legacy." The collection comprises more than 1,700 interviews; interviewees include prominent public figures as well as private individuals who played distinct roles in Kennedy's life, career, and/or administration.1 HJM's editors caution, however, that although oral histories provide unique insights into history and politics, they need to be balanced by secondary sources. Firsthand participants, particularly close associates, advisors, and supporters, offer subjective perspectives. This article is basedprimarily on the reminiscences and memories of Kennedy's 1946campaign team. It offers a unique glimpse into the emergence of one of America's most significant politicalfigures. Seth Ridinger teaches in the history department at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

With a well-known family name and a substantial fortune to accompany it, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) had the makings for success. After a Harvard education and fresh out of the Navy, Kennedy decided to step into the competitive world of national politics. A successful bid for Congress would place the young upstart firmly on the trajectory that would lead him into the White House some fourteen years later. However, the Kennedy name in 1946, although well recognized, did not have the same force it later came to have. For this reason, many historians, biographers, and political scientists alike conclude that it was simply finances that placed Kennedy in the winner's circle in 1946. Presidential historian and Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek points out in An Unfinished Life (2003) that a "staggering sum" was spent on the Kennedy debut, about six times what was spent on the same seat six years later by Tip O'Neill.2 Biographer Herbert Parmet agrees: Kennedy "knew he had the money to run the fight" and was not afraid to use it.3 It's no secret that money can go a long way in the world of campaign politics. And the cash flow for Kennedy's bid was copious. But as Kennedy biographer Geoffrey Perret observes in his biography, Jack: A Life Like No Other.

political history in the United States is replete with instances of people spending staggering sums to win elections only to come up empty-handed. Money in politics works synergistically, adding strength to a strong candidate, but often mak[ing] a weak one look stupid. Jack [Kennedy] possessed advantages his father's money could not buy.4

I would contend that Perret's interpretation is more accurate: money does not always equate to success. In fact, in 1946, Kennedy was up against a tough team of long-time local politicians. In that race for the Massachusetts Eleventh Congressional District, the Kennedy monetary supply, flowing from the seemingly infinite purse of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, no doubt provided advantages for the candidate, but it was certainly not the determining factor. The Kennedy campaign team focused on two timeless components for electoral success: image and organization. …

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