In February 1960, a month after John F. Kennedy announced for the U.S. presidency, a syndicated newspaper columnist suggested the campaign was prompted by his family’s desire to “get even” for decades of prejudice against them.
“Get even … is a hard phrase to explain,” Edwin A. Lahey, chief correspondent for Knight Newspapers, wrote in a dispatch from the campaign trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He continued:
But basically it means that any ambitious man from Boston with Irish forebears needs spiritual compensation for the humiliating experiences of his grandparents, who suffered social ostracism and economic discrimination at the hands of the Boston Brahmins. … Unless you have an Irish Catholic background, and have seen the Boston mind in operation, you cannot understand the full nuances of the phrase which describes a Boston Irishman’s success and distinction as a means of ‘getting even.’
Lahey was no slapdash columnist. In 1939, he joined the inaugural class of the Neiman Fellows at Harvard University. He became Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Daily News, then moved over to a similar post with the Knight chain.1
Lahey based the “get even” notion in his column on a just-published book, The Remarkable Kennedys, by Boston journalist Joe McCarthy. The 190-page work is a profile of the family, especially the candidate and his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., a business tycoon and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom just before World War II. McCarthy wrote:
Where does the Kennedy drive come from? Most probably it stems originally from the chafing, frustrating atmosphere of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice in Boston fifty years ago that made the young Joe Kennedy determined to push himself and his children to a place at the top of the world where they would not have to take a back seat to anybody.2
McCarthy (1916-1980) was born to 1890s Irish immigrant parents3 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston, a year before JFK’s birth. After graduating from Boston College, McCarthy began a newspaper reporting and magazine editing career that included producing an overview of Ireland for Time-Life.4
A profile of McCarthy based on the release of The Remarkable Kennedys colorfully described him as “a tall, slightly stooped, gray-haired man in his middle 40’s” who “lumbered” across the room and “slowly rummaged through a tiny pile of rumpled newspapers, envelopes and magazines he had stuffed under his weather-beaten trenchcoat thrown carelessly over the back of a chair.”5
In the book, McCarthy quoted Joe Kennedy as saying he moved his young family from Boston proper to suburban Brookline (where JFK was born) and other homes in New York, Cape Cod, and Florida, because “it was no place to bring up Irish Catholic children. I didn’t want them to go through what I had to go through.”6
There are numerous similar passages, such as this one in McCarthy’s voice:
Resentment probably burned hotter in Joe Kennedy than in most of the Boston Irish of his generation because he associated more closely with the Yankee Brahmins than did most Irish of his time. Consequently, he was more exposed to slurs, more aware from first-hand experience of the cool condescension with which Beacon Hill looked down on people of his religion and racial background.7
The Kennedy family’s Irish-Catholic heritage and their national ambitions were well documented before 1960, including beyond Boston and Massachusetts political circles. But JFK’s run for the White House and the political journalism of Lahey and McCarthy magnified the anti-Irish Catholic narrative.
The Lahey column swept across the country: The Miami Herald, Feb. 12; The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Feb. 18; Detroit Free Press, Feb. 18; Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller-Times, Feb. 19; The Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, Feb. 19; Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.), Feb. 21; Oakland (California) Tribune, Feb. 24; The Herald-News (Passaic, N.J.), Feb. 25; and likely many others that did not appear in my searches of digital newspaper archives. McCarthy’s book was serialized in many newspapers later that autumn, publishing just before Election Day.
In a book review, The New York Times also noted that “Kennedy, père, second generation descendant of Irish Catholic immigrants, suffered all the slights and indignities Brahmin Boston could contrive for its despised minorities in the decades around the turn of the [20th] century.”8
Kennedy’s Catholicism remained a larger campaign issue than his Irish roots, since prejudice against the religion was hardly confined to Boston’s elites. In November, “Kennedy’s victory not only broke through the age-old American bigotry against Catholics, but it also overcame the prejudice against the Irish.”9
Sixty years later, what is probably most remembered from McCarthy’s book is the prophetic quote that he obtained from JFK: “Just as I went into politics because [older brother] Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, my brother Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, Teddy would take over for him.”10
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