Wednesday, November 5, 2014



Boston, Massachusetts (JFK+50) Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once said that "money is the mother's milk of politics" and added that John F. Kennedy's first Congressional campaign which ended in victory 68 years ago today, November 5, 1946, was the beneficiary of his father's unending flow of cash.

While the Kennedy fortune certainly did not hurt JFK's first political campaign, it can be argued that the future president's success was also enhanced by image, voter perception and hard work.

That is the view of Seth M. Ridinger in his article published last year in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts titled "John F. Kennedy:  Public Perception and Campaign Strategy in 1946."

Mr. Ridinger writes...

"It was (JFK's) ability to shape public perception and outwork the other candidates, his innovations in campaign strategy, and his appeal as a naval hero that swept him to electoral victory.  Money was not the determining factor."

There are many cases in the history of American political campaigns, presidential and otherwise, in which the candidate who spent the most money ended up the loser.

Geoffrey Perrett agrees with Ridinger's view.  He writes...

"Jack...possessed advantages his father's money could not buy."

JFK's political career, Seth Ridinger tells us, began in October 1945 when the 28 year old would-be politician took to the lecture circuit in Boston.  With an eye on the Massachusetts 11th District Congressional seat, JFK benefited from a mother who was born in that district, a grandfather who represented that district and became Mayor of Boston, a father born in the district and another grandfather who served as a Democratic ward boss there.

First, however, the seat would have to be vacated by the incumbent James Michael Curley.   That matter was resolved when Curley decided to pass on re-election to Congress to run for mayor.  

Despite JFK's family ties to the district, however, he did not live there.  Jack Kennedy listed his address as 122 Bowdoin Street which was located in the district but that was just an apartment where he stayed when he visited the city.

So young Jack was seen by many as a carpetbagger.  In order to overcome that perception, JFK enlisted the support of long-time pols in the district such as David F. Powers.  Dave was said to have known everyone in the district by name and would join the Kennedy Campaign of 1946 and remain with the future President until November 22, 1963.

The prospective Congressman started his campaign day at 6:15 a.m.  He worked the dockyards and factories and met the voters until 7 p.m.  No other candidates were willing to work so hard.

Dave Powers said...

"Most politicians are inclined to be too lazy about campaigning.  They don't knock on people's doors."

JFK and Dave Powers
St. Matthew's Cathedral
Photo by Abbie Rowe
JFK Library Image

JFK's campaign emphasized his youth.  The campaign slogan was...

"The New Generation Offers A Leader."

Seth Ridinger argues that Jack Kennedy embodied change the voters of the 11th District were seeking in the post World War II period.  

JFK's volunteer workers were also young and the candidate managed to set himself apart from the traditional Boston politicians.  Campaign parties were held not only to get votes but to attract young volunteers.

Only 3 days before election day, the Kennedy Campaign gave a formal tea which had tremendous appeal among the women voters.

Ridinger adds that JFK was also the beneficiary of his war record.  John Hersey's story about his PT109 exploits published in Reader's Digest was a great boost.  Dave Powers once called it "our key piece in '46."

Mr. Ridinger concludes by writing...

"The Kennedy team succeeded in shaping the public's view of their candidate.  It was a well-orchestrated campaign, an image of youthful idealism fighting for change, and the general perception of military heroism that ultimately put Kennedy in power."

Since the 11th District was solidly Democratic, the heart of the campaign was the Primary.  JFK was one of ten candidates and his most formidable opponent was Mayor of Cambridge, Michael Neville.

The Kennedy Campaign concentrated early on getting as many votes as they could in Cambridge and Charlestown and then add more votes in other areas of the district.  The 11th District also included East Boston, the North End, Brighton and Somerville.

John F. Kennedy won the primary, held on June 18, 1946, with 22,183 votes. Neville came in second with 11,341.  Other candidates trailed far behind.

There was no need to campaign for the General Election.  On November 5, 1946, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected to the Congress of the United States.

The final vote was...

John F. Kennedy (D) 69,093
Lester W. Bown (R)   26,007
Philip Greer (I)              1,036

John Fitzgerald, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.
John F. Kennedy (1946)
JFK Library Image


"John F. Kennedy:  Public Perception and Campaign Strategy in 1946," by Seth M. Ridinger, Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2013.