John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, into one of the wealthiest families in the United States.
Universally called “JFK,” he became a millionaire at the age of 21 when his father gave him one million dollars, but politics and sports were of much more importance to him. He loved touch football, tennis, golf, sailing, and swimming. JFK attended Princeton University and Harvard, graduating from there cum laude. He attended Stanford University business school before serving in the U.S. Navy.
He was a naval hero during World War II when his PT boat was cut in half and he helped to save the lives of his crew. Returning after the war, he was elected to Congress in 1946 and to the Senate in 1948 and was popular, well-liked, and handsome. He had a fine sense of humor and was a good orator.
On September 12, 1953, JFK married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. They had three children, but one, Patrick, born during Kennedy’s term of office, died in infancy.
JFK gained national prominence when he gave the keynote address at the 1956 Democratic National Convention. In 1960, when the Democrats nominated JFK over Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy asked Johnson to be his Vice President. Kennedy and his opponent, incumbent Vice President Richard M. Nixon, ushered in a new era with a series of four televised Presidential debates. In November 1960, JFK became the youngest man ever elected President. (Theodore Roosevelt was 42 when he took over after McKinley‘s death.) He was also the only Roman Catholic President.
The national vote was dramatically close, but JFK won 303 electoral college votes to Nixon’s 219.
At his inauguration, Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” perhaps the most famous single quote from an inaugural address.
Among many notables in his cabinet, JFK appointed his brother Bobby as Attorney General.
From Eisenhower, Kennedy inherited the “Cold War” with the Soviet Union. In 1962, when American spy planes discovered Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S., many thought the nation was at the brink of war. Kennedy imposed a blockade of Cuba but promised not to invade, and the Soviet Union dismantled the missile bases, resolving the confrontation. (Upon seeing photos of the dismantling, Adlai Stevenson, by now Kennedy’s Ambassador to the U.N, famously said, “We are eyeball to eyeball with the enemy, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”)
Kennedy also promised to send Americans to the moon and bring them back safely before the end of the decade, and although he did not live to see it, his promise came true. He called his program to make things better for Americans “the New Frontier” and he started the Peace Corps.
When the Kennedy family lived in the White House, a managerie of animals abounded on the premises, and Mrs. Kennedy erected a play yard for them under the trees near the President’s West Wing office. They had rabbits, lambs, ponies and guinea pigs. A Welsh Terrier named Charlie was a favorite of the family and was soon joined by a dog named Pushinka, a gift to Caroline from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and daughter of Strelka, one of the first dogs in space. Charlie and Pushinka produced a litter of pups that the President referred to as “Pupniks.” Another favorite was a pony named Macaroni who was photographed actually peering through the White House window looking at the President at work. He invited her in, but Macaroni simply turned and ambled away.
On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated while traveling in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas. Twenty-four year old Lee Harvey Oswald was officially charged as the assassin, but some people think it was a larger conspiracy, although that has never been proved. Oswald was himself shot to death two days later while in custody.
Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Five years later, Kennedy’s brother Bobby, then a presidential candidate, was also assassinated, and was buried near Kennedy’s gravesite.