Editor’s note: Barbara A. Perry is the director of presidential studies at UVA’s Miller Center and author of “Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch.” In honor of John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday on May 29, she will co-host the Miller Center’s panel discussion, “JFK at 100: The Road to Camelot,” at 3 p.m. at the center on June 1.
When Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy presented to the federal government the deed to JFK’s Brookline, Massachusetts birthplace on what would have been his 52nd birthday in 1969, she pointed to the upstairs bedroom where she had given birth to the future president and recalled, “When you hold your baby in your arms the first time, and you think of all the things you can say and do to influence him, it’s a tremendous responsibility. What you do with him and for him can influence not only him, but everyone he meets, and not for a day or a month or a year, but for time and eternity.”
As the nation commemorates President Kennedy’s centennial on May 29th, it seems appropriate to ponder how his mother shaped his influential life.
Among her four sons, Rose had the most fraught relationship with Jack. Her Victorian perfectionism collided with his youthful rebelliousness. He chided her for frequent trips from home. “Gee, you’re a great mother to go away and leave your children alone,” the sickly boy observed. Yet, as an adult, he had to admit that she was the “glue” that held the family together.
Family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. certainly molded his famous sons, Joe Jr., Jack, Bobby and Teddy, but if he was the family’s producer, Rose filled all the other credit lines in the Camelot play. As Teddy eulogized his parents, “Dad was the spark. Mother was the light of our lives. He was our greatest fan. She was our greatest teacher.”
What, then, were the lessons that Rose passed on to her father’s namesake, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, starting 100 years ago?
- Faith: JFK was not as openly devout as his brothers, walking the fine line between church and state on his way to becoming the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, but he observed the church’s traditions, if not all of its commandments. He attended weekly mass; recited prayers each night; wore a St. Christopher medal, along with his dog tags, into battle; and placed a similar amulet in his infant son’s casket four months before his own death.
- Sparkling wit: Rose could be an exacting taskmaster, but she leavened her convent-school discipline with a wry outlook on the world. Even as a young boy, Jack’s waggish humor reflected his mother’s Irish charm. He teased that his youngest brother, born on George Washington’s birthday, should be named for the first president, but he wrote more seriously from boarding school that he would like to be the infant’s godfather. JFK’s keen humor would become a hallmark of his presidential speeches and press conferences.
- Political DNA: JFK’s paternal grandfather practiced politics as a ward heeler and state legislator from East Boston, but the Kennedys’ genetic predisposition toward electoral politics came from Rose’s father, the legendary U.S. congressman and Boston mayor John F. (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald. Grandson Jack practiced a more sophisticated, urbane style on the stump, but he first learned grassroots politicking at Honey Fitz’s elbow.
- Wanderlust: Although young Jack resented his mother’s penchant for travel, as a teen he followed in her footsteps, asking to study for a “gap year” in London, touring pre-WWII Europe and South America, serving as an aide during his father’s ambassadorship to England, and circling the globe to learn about the Cold War world. Foreign policy was his passion, sparked by Rose’s placing maps around the house and quizzing her children about geography.
- News obsession: Both Grandpa Fitzgerald and Rose clipped news stories from the daily papers and shared them with their offspring. Mrs. Kennedy tested her children’s knowledge of current events at the dinner table. Jack subscribed to the New York Times as a prep-school teen and briefly served as a reporter after WWII before creating news himself in Washington.
- Media savvy: As the daughter of Boston’s colorful mayor, Rose Fitzgerald grew up in the media spotlight, and she craved it as an adult. She passed along to Jack a talent for attracting news coverage.
- Love of history: Raised in the cradle of the American Revolution, Rose ensured that her children visited and had an appreciation for historic landmarks surrounding their childhood homes. Stories of American heroism would lead JFK to conceive his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage.”
- Literary flair: All of the Kennedy children cherished their mother’s reading to them, but Jack particularly drew sustenance from literature as a distraction from his illnesses. Rose kept journals of eloquent passages that she eventually wove into her speeches on the campaign trail, and JFK could turn a phrase from his own pen or that of stellar wordsmith Ted Sorensen.
- Compelling public imagery: Although young JFK chafed under his mother’s strictures, her perfectionism created the famous images of her family, including their dazzling smiles, which readily captured the world’s imagination.
- Celebrity status: “Starstruck” came into usage in 1938, just as the Kennedy family became celebrities in pre-war London, but Rose had begun her lifelong hobby of autograph collecting as a young girl. Proximity to VIPs made her feel important, and her children reflected her admiration for monarchs, movie stars, sports heroes, religious and political leaders, literati and artists. Jack’s affiliation with Hollywood’s “Rat Pack,” led by Frank Sinatra, produced an aura that attracted men and women alike. “He’s better than Elvis!” shouted a co-ed at a Kennedy campaign rally. In the television era, such star power helped propel the handsome candidate to the White House.