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Joe Kennedy Jr. and John F. Kennedy

“For someone who prided himself on his independence — whose sense of self rested partly on questioning authority, on making up his own mind about public issues and private standards — taking on his elder brother’s identity was not Jack Kennedy’s idea of coming into his own. Indeed, if a political career were strictly a case of satisfying his father’s ambitions and honoring his brother’s memory by fulfilling his life plan, it is more than doubtful that he would have taken on the assignment. To be sure, he felt, as he wrote Lem Billings, ‘terribly exposed and vulnerable’ after his brother’s death. Joe’s passing burdened him with an ‘unnamed responsibility’ to his whole family — to its desire to expand upon the public distinction established by Joe Sr. and to fulfill Joe Jr.’s intention to reach for the highest office.

Nor was his father completely confident that Jack was well suited for the job. As Joe said later, his eldest son [Joe Jr.] ‘used to talk about being President some day, and a lot of smart people thought he would make it. He was altogether different from Jack — more dynamic, more sociable and easy going. Jack in those days back there when he was getting out of college was rather shy, withdrawn and quiet. His mother and I couldn’t picture him as a politician. We were sure he’d be a teacher or a writer.’ Mark Dalton, a politician close to the Kennedys in 1945, remembered Jack as far from a natural. He did not seem ‘to be built for politics in the sense of being the easygoing affable person. He was extremely drawn and thin… He was always shy. He drove himself into this… It must have been a tremendous effort of will.’ Nor was he comfortable with public speaking, impressing one of his navy friends as unpolished: ‘He spoke very fast, very rapidly, and seemed to be just a trifle embarrassed on stage.’

Despite his father’s help — or perhaps because of it — Jack continued to have great doubts about whether he was making the right decision. He could not shake the feeling that he was essentially a stand-in for Joe Jr. When he spoke with Look magazine, which published an article about his campaign, he said that he was only doing ‘the job Joe would have done.’ Privately he told friends, ‘I’m just filling Joe’s shoes. If he were alive, I’d never be in this.’ He later told a reporter, ‘If Joe had lived, I probably would have gone to law school in 1946.’ He disliked the inevitable comparisons between him and his brother, in which he seemed all too likely to come off second-best, but it seemed impossible to shake them.

Jack also felt temperamentally unsuited to an old-fashioned Boston-style campaign. False camaraderie was alien to his nature. He was a charmer but not an easygoing, affable character like his grandfather Honey Fitz, who loved mingling with people. Drinking in bars with strangers with whom he swapped stories and jokes was not a part of JFK’s disposition. ‘As far as backslapping with the politicians,’ he said, ‘I think I’d rather go somewhere with my familiars or sit alone somewhere and read a book.'”

Joe Kennedy Jr., Joseph Kennedy Sr., and John F. Kennedy


From chapter 4 (“Choosing Politics”) of Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.

In the 2nd chapter of the book, there is an anecdote which relates Joe Jr.’s affable swagger during his days at Harvard:

His brother’s success in campus politics also reduced any hopes Jack may have had of making a mark in that area. Under an unstated family rule of primogeniture, the eldest son had first call on a political career. And Joe Jr. left no doubt that this was already his life’s ambition. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, one of Joe’s tutors, remembered him as keenly interested in politics and public affairs and quick to cite his father as the source of his beliefs. “When I become President, I will take you up to the White House with me,” he liked to tell people. Joe’s quick rise to prominence on campus gave resonance to his boasts.

John F. Kennedy, Joe Sr., Joe Jr.

Later, Dallek characterizes the cataclysmic effect that Joe Jr.’s death in World War Two had on his father and younger brother:

Joe’s death devastated his father, who told a friend, “You know how much I had tied my whole life up to his and what great things I saw in the future for him.” To another friend, he explained that he needed to interest himself in something new, or he would go mad, “because all my plans for my own future were all tied up with young Joe and that has gone to smash.” Joe’s death also confirmed his father’s worst fear that U.S. involvement in the war would cost his family dearly, deepening his antagonism to American involvements abroad for the rest of his life.

His brother’s death also evoked a terrible sense of loss in Jack…

His heroic death left Jack with unresolved feelings toward his brother and father. His competition with Joe had “defined his own identity,” he told Lem Billings. Now there was no elder brother to compete against, and Joe Jr.’s death sealed his superiority “forever in his father’s heart.” “I’m shadowboxing in a match the shadow is always going to win,” Jack said.

Given the upcoming anniversary of his death, I’ll be posting more from and about Jack Kennedy in the next few days.

Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.