JFK in the Senate

The anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death spawned an assortment of books on the subject this year. In fact, a recent New York Times article estimated that 40,000 books have been published about John F. Kennedy since his death. My guess is that about 30,000 of them are about his assassination, five thousand about his amorous life, and the remaining five thousand about whether he actually wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage. I was interested in learning something new about Kennedy’s life and I found it close to home. JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency was released last month by John T. Shaw, a Washington D.C. based Congressional correspondent and author who is also my neighbor on Tilghman Island, Maryland.

In a readable and engaging way, Shaw provides a fresh perspective on one of this country’s most storied political figures by focusing on an aspect of JFK’s history that has routinely been neglected: his eight years as a United States Senator. Shaw argues that JFK had a consequential Senate career which has been largely overlooked, even by Kennedy scholars. While he doesn’t pretend that JFK was a model lawmaker or a “Master of the Senate,” Shaw does delve into the surprising foreign and domestic policy contributions Kennedy made. The first Senator Kennedy participated in some of the critical debates of his time, including America’s Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, France’s faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria, and the battle to reform the labor movement in the United States.  He also illustrates how Kennedy used the Senate to transform himself from an unimposing back bencher to a politician with a national following.

Shaw vividly describes a little known highlight of JFK’s Senate career: his chairmanship of a special committee to determine the five best senators in American history. The project took energy and focus during a busy time when he was already in presidential campaign mode. But it allowed him to become immersed in one of his great loves: the study of history. He delved into the mystery of political greatness and explored it with some of the nation’s leading scholars and Senate colleagues. JFK’s chairmanship of this panel cemented his reputation as the Senate’s historian and helped him create a compelling political identity as an energetic young senator who was also deeply steeped in American history.

Shaw shows how Kennedy shrewdly used the Senate as a launching pad for his 1960 presidential bid, becoming only the second U.S. senator to go directly from the Senate to the White House. Before Kennedy, only Warren Harding had accomplished this difficult transition.  And since Kennedy’s 1960 victory, only Barack Obama has made the leap.

JFK in the Senate also explains John F. Kennedy’s continuing relevance to contemporary American politics. The path he engineered from the Senate to the White House remains relevant for the various senators who are considering 2016 presidential bids such as Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). JFK’s lessons for Senators with presidential aspirations is that they should run when they think the political time is right, wage an aggressive and relentless campaign, and use the Senate as a credential and a platform to gain visibility without getting caught up its daily political fights. And above all else, no self-respecting presidential candidate should ever let anyone think they are a Senate insider. That is the kiss of political death.