© 2016 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.

John F. Kennedy Introduction

What John F. Kennedy did... and why you should care

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, is one of the most celebrated and idolized figures in American history. Born into a wealthy, well-connected family, Kennedy was bred for a life in politics. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II—JFK earned several medals for his bravery—he ran for Congress and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946. Kennedy served in Congress for fourteen years—six in the House and eight in the Senate—and built a real name for himself in the Democratic Party. With the help of his father's money, Kennedy launched a presidential campaign in 1959; by virtue of his charm and charisma, Kennedy overcame anti-Catholic prejudice to win the presidency in 1960, defeating Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in decades. Though his presidency was characterized by a mixed bag of blunders (the Bay of Pigs), successes (the Cuban Missile Crisis), and indiscretions (affairs with numerous women), Kennedy's charisma was a constant and his vision of American progress was undeniably inspiring. Tragically, John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963, ending one of the most promising political careers of the 20th century far too early.

Although John F. Kennedy's tenure as commander-in-chief was tragically short—only two years and ten months passed between his inauguration and his assassination—and his accomplishments in the White House relatively modest, he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential presidents of all time.

Why? The answer is simple. JFK was—and is—an American icon.

As the youngest person ever to be elected president, he charmed the nation with his charisma and good looks, injecting new energy into the federal government at a turning point in U.S. history. Kennedy ushered in the tumultuous 1960s, a decade of great activism and social change, with an idealistic message of empowerment: "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."1 Through his actions and rhetoric, Kennedy captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation of young people, urging them to participate in civic life, engage with the world, and fight for equality. Even though his presidency did not yield a wealth of concrete political accomplishments (and JFK made his fair share of mistakes as well), his legacy in American politics has been profound. By issuing a mandate for public service and inspiring a nation to take on all the challenges of a new era, JFK helped set the stage for the major social, cultural, and political changes of the past half century.

People who Shmooped this also Shmooped...