John F. Kennedy: Congressman
Upon his return to the United States, Jack was hailed as something of a war hero (in fact, Jack's bravery in the South Pacific was later immortalized in the 1963 film PT 109). After a brief stint in journalism, Kennedy shifted his attention toward politics, though he felt ambivalent about running for public office. With some heavy persuasion from his father, Jack ultimately decided to run for Congress in Massachusetts' 11th district. His slogan: "The New Generation Offers a Leader." In order to win over working-class voters, Jack campaigned vigorously, meeting with local organizations, emphasizing his military service, and appearing with his grandfather, Honey Fitz, who had represented the same congressional district forty years earlier. Joe Sr. spent upwards of $250,000 on the campaign (which today would be worth something like $2 million), hiring a public relations firm to manage Jack's image and bombard voters with pro-Kennedy billboards and mailings.9 Given the amount of money put into the campaign, it was no surprise when Jack, only 29 years old, was elected to Congress in 1946.
In the House, Jack established himself as a moderate within the Democratic Party. On fiscal issues, he took a middle-of-the-road stance, but voted consistently pro-union and supported social programs (e.g. federally financed housing) that would benefit his largely working-class constituency. With the help of his father's connections, Jack was appointed to the House Education and Labor Committee and the Veterans' Affairs Committee; these appointments increased the freshman congressman's political visibility. In running for re-election in 1948, Jack made foreign policy the cornerstone of his campaign, championing "Americanism" and condemning Soviet imperialism. Jack's timing couldn't have been better—anticommunist sentiment was just beginning to heat up as the United States entered into Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Both John F. Kennedy and his father viewed the House as just the first step in Jack's political career. In 1952, with six years of congressional experience under his belt, Jack decided to run for a more prestigious position in the federal government: one of Massachusetts' two seats in the US Senate. Once again, Joe Sr. played a large role in Jack's campaign, contributing enormous sums of money, tapping into his vast array of powerful connections, and assembling an accomplished team of strategists in an effort to beat Jack's Republican opponent, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Joe Sr.'s overbearing nature, however, caused conflict within the campaign, and in June of 1952, Jack's younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy (a.k.a. Bobby), was called upon to take over the position of campaign manager. Under Bobby's direction, large groups of supporters were recruited and mobilized, and Jack's "I'll do more for Massachusetts" message thrived. One observer of Jack's campaign wondered, "What is there about Kennedy that makes every Catholic girl in Boston between eighteen and twenty-eight think it's a holy crusade to get him elected?"10
In November, Jack was elected to the Senate, not only cementing his place in American politics, but also solidifying a partnership with his younger brother that would later shape his presidency. 1952 signaled the birth of another important Kennedy alliance: Jack's relationship with speechwriter and political strategist, Ted Sorensen. Kennedy hired Sorenson as a legislative assistant fresh out of law school, but the bright 24-year-old soon took on greater responsibilities in Jack's office. In later years, Sorenson served as one of Kennedy's closest confidants and advisers.
After four years in the Senate, JFK began to grow restless. In 1956, eager for higher political office, he embarked on a quest to secure the Democratic vice presidential nomination to run alongside presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson. Despite warnings from his father—Joe Sr. considered Jack to be "an idiot who was ruining his political career"11—Jack campaigned heavily for the position at the Democratic Convention in August. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful (Bobby attributed the loss to disorganization) the experience was a positive one in the long term. Stevenson was trounced by President Eisenhower in the 1956 election; it was probably a good thing for Kennedy not to be associated with his defeat. Moreover, Jack's bid for VP granted him greater visibility within both the Democratic Party and the nation at large. After the convention, "John F. Kennedy" was a name on many people's lips.