JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency

JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency

by John T. Shaw


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Before John F. Kennedy became a legendary young president he was the junior senator from Massachusetts. The Senate was where JFK's presidential ambitions were born and first realized. In the first book to deal exclusively with JFK's Senate years, author John T. Shaw looks at how the young Senator was able to catapult himself on the national stage. Tip O'Neill once quipped that Kennedy received more publicity for less accomplishment than anyone in Congress. But O'Neill didn't understand that Kennedy saw a different path to congressional influence and ultimately the presidency. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic leader in the Senate, JFK never aspired to be "The Master of the Senate" who made deals and kept the institution under his control. Instead, he envisioned himself as a "Historian-Scholar-Statesman" in the mold of his hero Winston Churchill which he realized with the 1957 publication of Profiles of Courage that earned JFK a Pulitzer Prize and public limelight. Smart, dashing, irreverent and literary, the press could not get enough of him. Yet, largely overlooked has been Kennedy's tenure on a special Senate committee to identify the five greatest senators in American history—JFK's work on this special panel coalesced his relationships in Congress, and helped catapult him toward the presidency. Based on primary documents from JFK's Senate years as well as memoirs, oral histories, and interviews with his top aides, JFK in the Senate provides new insight into an underappreciated aspect of his political career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137279491
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/06/2015
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,316,432
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John T. Shaw is a senior correspondent and vice president for Market News International and a contributing writer for the Washington Diplomat. He is a frequent guest on C-SPAN, where he discusses Congress, as well as on KPCC, an NPR affiliate in Los Angeles. He has also appeared on the "PBS News Hour." Shaw was a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for six years, and he speaks frequently to seminars for diplomats in Washington. He lives in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt

JFK in the Senate

Pathway to the Presidency

By John T. Shaw

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 John T. Shaw
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-08826-0




On the afternoon of March 19, 1959, most of the 98 U.S. senators and about 50 of their invited guests jammed into the ornate Senate Reception Room for a ceremony. In one respect this early spring event was your standard Senate occasion. The Senate's chaplain offered a patriotic prayer and Democratic and Republican leaders spoke, as did the vice president in his capacity as president of the Senate. But this occasion was unusual, both because of the participants and because of the purpose of the ceremony.

Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona, who was the Senate president pro tempore, the Senate's most senior Democrat, presided over the event. He was a bald, terse, and crusty man who was rarely without a cigar. He made the necessary introductions and kept the program moving along. Holding forth with great flourish was the Senate's Republican leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, invoking Old Testament scripture and uttering lofty pronouncements about the Senate and the flow of American history. "What an amazing and moving pageant this Republic is," he intoned as he prepared to paraphrase the Book of Revelation and suggest a Hollywood movie about the life of Joshua.

The three featured speakers at the ceremony were tucked into one corner of the reception room: Vice President Richard Nixon, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, and John F. Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts. They and their guests had gathered to celebrate the unveiling of portraits of five of the greatest senators in American history — the Famous Five, as they were known — as determined by a special committee that Kennedy chaired.

The remarks made by Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy highlighted their different relationships with the Senate, their distinctive political personalities, and the way their careers had overlapped. As they joined together on this March afternoon to celebrate senators of the past, all three hoped to win the presidency the following year and put behind them their direct association with the Senate.

Nixon, lean and black-haired, said the ceremony would be remembered as one of the proudest days in the history of the Senate because it honored not only five historic figures who served in the upper chamber but also "hundreds of others throughout the years who have borne the proud title of U.S. Senator." The vice president, who had been in his second year of Senate service when he was elected vice president on a ticket with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, noted the ceremony was the culmination of an effort that began nearly nine decades earlier in 1870 when Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont wrote to the architect of the Capitol suggesting that artists be commissioned to paint portraits of leading senators in the reception room. "No action was taken. Or should I say that the Senate acted in its usual, very deliberate way," Nixon quipped.

Johnson, the majority leader and the widely recognized powerhouse of the Senate, used his remarks to make it clear that the project to identify the five Senate greats had been his idea from the start. He recalled that in the summer of 1955, as he was recovering in the hospital from a heart attack, he was visited by then Republican leader William Knowland and Earle Clements, Johnson's Senate deputy. At Johnson's suggestion, they discussed filling five panels on the walls of the Senate Reception Room with paintings of the leading senators in American history. Shortly thereafter, Knowland and Clements introduced a resolution in Johnson's name creating a special committee to determine the five Senate greats. Johnson recalled that he had initially been designated to lead the project, but because of health reasons he was forced to pass on the assignment to the "very able and gifted" Kennedy.

Although the ceremony was to honor the five former senators, Johnson noted that "in a real sense we have met here to honor the institution of the Senate, which all of us love so much, for what it is, and for what it has always been in our system: the testing place for the character of the living generations of Americans." Borrowing from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Johnson said, "Our recognition here can add little to the stature and esteem already so securely theirs. Yet by this action we remind ourselves — and perhaps remind the entire Nation — of some of the most enduring values. History has not had to seek out these men, to give them their due. They were honored in their own times, even though they were frequently criticized. ... But the greatness that emerges from each of them and towers high is the greatness of character." Then he made a veiled allusion to the fact that these five senators had each dreamed of residing in the White House but never quite made it there. Johnson said the Senate's Famous Five "aspired, at times, for other roles. Most of them, in fact, found less than complete fulfillment of their aims and of their convictions."

But the clear star of the event was Kennedy, a rising force in American politics who was already actively running for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. Slender, youthful, and confident, he shifted smoothly from lofty to playful. Blending serious reflections and humorous stories, Kennedy made the Senate event his own.

Kennedy described the five men who were chosen for the Senate's so-called Hall of Fame. First was Henry Clay of Kentucky, whom Kennedy called "probably the most gifted parliamentary figure in the history of the Congress, whose tireless devotion to the Union demonstrated that intelligent compromise required both courage and conviction." Kennedy noted that Clay served in the Senate on four separate occasions between 1806 and 1852 and was deeply skilled "in the art of the possible." During his long career, Clay served as Speaker of the House and secretary of state and ran for the presidency three times. Next was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, whom Kennedy described as "the eloquent and articulate champion of 'Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.'" Webster served from 1827 to 1841 and from 1845 to 1850 and used his legendary oratorical skills to dominate the Senate of his time. "His splendid dignity and decorum elevated the status and prestige of the Senate," Kennedy proclaimed. The third choice was John Calhoun of South Carolina. Also a senator from pre–Civil War days, Calhoun served in the upper chamber from 1832 to 1843 and from 1845 to 1850. Kennedy described Calhoun as a forceful champion of state sovereignty, a masterful defender of the rights of political minorities, and the author of a penetrating and original theory about government. Kennedy called Calhoun "the intellectual leader and logician of those defending the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority."

Moving to the twentieth century, Kennedy's committee selected two accomplished senators who represented the progressive and conservative traditions in modern America. Robert M. LaFollette Sr. of Wisconsin was, according to Kennedy, "a ceaseless battler for the underprivileged in an age of special privilege, a courageous independent in an age of conformity, who fought memorably against tremendous odds and stifling inertia for the social and economic reforms which ultimately proved essential to American progress in the 20 century." LaFollette served in the Senate from 1906 to 1925 and was at the forefront of most of the major economic and foreign policy debates of his time, often on the losing side. The committee's final choice was Robert Taft of Ohio, whom Kennedy saw as "the conscience of the conservative movement and its most constructive leader, whose high integrity transcended partisanship and whose analytical mind candidly and courageously put principle above ambition." Taft served in the Senate from 1939 to 1953 and demonstrated, Kennedy argued, the importance of balanced and forceful opposition in an age of powerful governments.

Kennedy acknowledged that the choice of these five was not without dissent. Contemporary Americans were more familiar with the controversies surrounding Taft and LaFollette, but he said that Clay, Webster, and Calhoun also had their detractors. "Let us also remember that it was said of Henry Clay that 'he prefers the specious to the solid, and the plausible to the true. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes.' Those words were spoken by John C. Calhoun," Kennedy said as the audience broke into laughter. "On the other hand, who was it who said that Calhoun was a rigid fanatic, ambitious, selfishly partisan and a sectional 'turncoat' with 'too much genius and too little common sense,' who would die a traitor or a madman? Henry Clay, of course," Kennedy said, to more laughter. He then recalled that John Quincy Adams had once remarked on the "gigantic intellect, the envious temper, the ravenous ambition, and the rotten heart of Daniel Webster."

Kennedy said his panel's effort to identify five of the most outstanding U.S. senators was also an opportunity to call attention to the high traditions of the Senate and its significant role in American history. "This Nation, I know, will honor for all time to come these men and all those who seek to follow in their hard path."

When the speeches were concluded, the senators and their guests watched as brown drapes were removed from each of the five paintings. As the likenesses of Clay, Webster, Calhoun, LaFollette, and Taft were unveiled, they were met with great applause. Among those in the audience were several descendents of the Famous Five: Henrietta Clay, great-granddaughter of Henry Clay; John Calhoun, the great-grandson of John Calhoun; Allston Calhoun, the great-great-nephew of John Calhoun; Fola and Mary LaFollette, the daughter and sister of Robert LaFollette; and William Taft III, the son of Robert Taft.


In addition to marking the culmination of his committee's four years of work, the Senate Reception Room ceremony was both a "coming of age" and a "preparing to leave" event for Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy had served in the Senate since January 1953 and had been a compelling yet quiet presence for nearly eight years. A national celebrity because of his famous family, celebrated war record, and impressive literary prowess, Kennedy struggled to find a role in the upper chamber that was commensurate with his ambition and promise. As he stood before the full Senate in the reception room, next to Vice President Nixon and Senate Majority Leader Johnson, discussing this Senate project, Kennedy was at the zenith of his career in the Senate. He almost seemed to be one of the club.

But he was not spending a lot of time around the Senate that spring because his presidential campaign was in full swing. In March 1959 alone, Kennedy campaigned in Utah, Oregon, Montana, Rhode Island, and Florida and spent time away from the Capitol to give major speeches on nuclear deterrence and urban challenges to policy groups in Washington, D.C. The day before the Senate Reception Room ceremony, he traveled to Milwaukee and gave a soaring speech on the challenges confronting America. "The next year, the next decade, in all likelihood the next generation, will require more bravery and wisdom on our part than any other period in our history," Kennedy said. "We will be face to face, every day, in every part of our lives and times, with the real issue of our age — the issue of survival."

During his Senate years Kennedy displayed considerable talent and unmistakable star quality, but also a reluctance to immerse himself in the drudgery of legislative affairs. One observer likened him to a charming young man who dazzles a dinner party but then skips out and leaves others to clean the dishes. During his eight years in the Senate, Kennedy filled out physically, deepened intellectually, sharpened his writing skills, became a polished and effective speaker, and mastered the nuances of American politics. He matured in a striking way. "In all my life, I never saw anybody grow the way Jack did," House Speaker Tip O'Neill wrote. "He turned into a great personality and a beautiful talker. But until he was in the Senate you just couldn't imagine that he was really going anywhere."

Kennedy participated actively and sometimes boldly in the central policy debates of his time: the challenges posed by China and the Soviet Union, the icy armistice in Korea, France's faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria, the appropriate defense posture for America during the Cold War, and the politically charged attempt to rein in corrupt labor unions. However, critics accused Kennedy of giving headline-producing speeches on controversial topics and then leaving the gritty work of producing legislation to his Senate colleagues.

Kennedy was not a Senate leader and tried to avoid several controversial matters, such as the debate on civil rights legislation and the condemnation of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Had he stayed in the Senate, it would have taken Kennedy decades to become a committee chairman. The other path to Senate influence, a party leadership position, was dominated by Lyndon Johnson. The powerful Senate Democratic leader controlled his party's, and his chamber's, substantive agenda and legislative schedule. And Johnson was not inclined to share power, especially with a cool, sometimes remote, Harvard-educated man who seemed to look upon Johnson's beloved Senate with detachment, if not disdain.

John Kennedy never envisioned a career in the Senate as an end unto itself. He didn't seek out mentors, or build a network of kindred spirits, or plunge into causes, or analyze how he could become a better senator. Kennedy was not interested in slowly honing his legislative skills and patiently waiting for opportunities to nudge legislation forward. He was not drawn to the day-to-day challenge of writing bills that might eventually become law. He found the Senate a frustrating place in which years of work could be wiped away by a brief presidential statement or veto threat.

Kennedy aspired to be president even before he was elected to the Senate in 1952. He was fully aware that the Senate was not necessarily the best political base for a presidential bid. While it gave him a national platform, it also required him to cast difficult votes and declare his position on controversial issues. He knew history demonstrated that the Senate was not a congenial place for senators who wanted to travel immediately to the White House. Before Kennedy's election as president in 1960, only one other sitting senator — Warren G. Harding of Ohio — went directly from the Senate to the White House, and that was in 1920.

However, Kennedy shrewdly used the upper chamber as a policy and political training ground. Through study, travel, briefings with experts, and debates with his colleagues, he learned about domestic and foreign policy. Kennedy became an expert in labor law and was an impressive contributor to debates on Algeria, Indochina, Eastern Europe, and the competing forces of nationalism and colonialism. Some of his Senate speeches were strikingly impressive; they were well written, historically literate, informative, coherent, and forward leaning.

During his eight years in the Senate, John Kennedy learned how to frame issues, delve into problems, and craft compromises. He transformed himself into a man of substance and probity. Kennedy also forged his political identity during his Senate years. He learned how to project himself as a future-oriented politician who was keenly focused on the challenges of the coming decade — the 1960s — while also steeped in America's past. His love of history helped Kennedy offset his relative youth, which worried some voters; it allowed him to project himself as a young man with depth, even gravitas. As the author of several books, including Profiles in Courage, and a slew of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, Kennedy sought to be seen as a statesman-scholar. He was more interested in becoming an Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill than a Robert Taft or Richard Russell, two Senate lions of the legislative process. Statecraft elevated by scholarship stirred him far more than did the mechanics of muscling legislation through the Senate.


Excerpted from JFK in the Senate by John T. Shaw. Copyright © 2013 John T. Shaw. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 The Unveiling 1

2 Congressman Kennedy 11

3 The 1952 Campaign 29

4 The Senate of the 1950s 47

5 Senator Kennedy and the Home Front 63

6 The High Realm of Foreign Affairs 87

7 The Scholarly Senator 117

8 The Kennedy Committee 141

9 The Total Politician 167

10 The High Court of History 185

11 The Footprints of Senator John F. Kennedy 199

Notes 207

Bibliography 219

Index 223

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JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was fun to read and beautifully paced. I would have liked to know a little more of the 'story behind the story' -- for example, was Kennedy an untutored natural in front of the television camera, or was he smarter than his competitors about, and better able to, invest in coaching? But it provided a good picture of how Kennedy used his time in the Senate to prepare for his run for the Presidency. Good thing he didn't have Twitter; he no doubt would have been busy using it, instead of engaging in much of the writing, speaking, and travel that Shaw chronicled.