The Kennedy family over a series of generation dominated Irish-American politics for most of the 20th century, and played a central role in the history of the Democratic Party into the 21st century.
The first prominent representative was John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald (1863-1950). A well-educated banker, he could not resist the lure of Boston ward politics. He served two terms as mayor of Boston but failed in comeback races for Congress, the Senate and the governorship. Nevertheless, his high visibility in the Irish community guaranteed fast political tracks for his grandsons.
In 1914 Fitzgerald's daughter Rose Kennedy (1890-1995) married Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969), the Harvard-educated son of wealthy liquor dealer. Joe built the family fortune with brilliant forays into banking, shipbuilding, motion pictures, real estate and (just before prohibition ended), a heavy investment in upscale imported liquor. He moved the family base from Boston to New York in 1927, where it remained until his son John F. Kennedy (1917–63) returned to Boston in 1946. Joe was noted for his fierce devotion to promoting his children, his notorious love affairs, his ruthless business dealings, and his major roles in the New Deal. He was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who named Kennedy in 1934 to head the new Securities and Exchange Commission, and turn it into a powerful watchdog of Wall Street. Joe reached the pinnacle of esteem as Ambassador to the Court of St. James (ambassador to Britain) in 1938–40, cruising elegantly in the highest circles of London society, in contrast to his maligned reputation in American high society. Daughter Kathleen Kennedy (1920–48), became Marchioness of Hartington when she married the heir to a dukedom; she died in a plane crash. Recalled as ambassador because of his isolationism and support for Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain’s appeasement of Germany, Joe nevertheless endorsed FDR in the critical 1940 election. Unlike Al Smith and other prominent Catholics, he refused to attack Roosevelt and thereby preserved presidential options for his sons. Joe was increasingly isolated after 1941, keeping his distance from the clubhouse politicians who clustered around Honey Fitz, as well as Yankee businessmen he thought had denied him entry into the most elite Harvard circles. His business enterprises flourished.
Joe established his daughter Eunice Kennedy Schriver (1921-2009) in Chicago, where her husband Sargent Shriver (1915- ) operated the family’s giant office building, the Merchandise Mart. Although Shriver led the antipoverty programs in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1972, as an in-law he never broke into the inner circle. The Chicago ties paid off handsomely when Mayor Richard J. Daley, boss of the city’s powerful Democratic machine, enthusiastically supported the Kennedys’ national political campaigns. Eunice herself gained national acclaim for her charities, especially the Special Olympics for athletes with disabilities, sponsored by the Kennedy family.
Realizing his leadership status as one of the half dozen most powerful Irishmen in America, Joe played up his ties with Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, and with the nation's most prominent Irish Republican, Senator Joseph McCarthy, even encouraging the bachelor senator to date his daughters.
Joe and Rose instilled remarkably high levels of solidarity and competitiveness in their four sons and five daughters. Rosemary Kennedy (1918-2005) was mentally retarded and institutionalized, which led to family involvement the Special Olympics. Of the sons, only Robert Kennedy (1925–68) followed his mother in becoming a devout Catholic with high moral standards regarding sexual behavior; he fathered 11 children. Joe never ran for office himself but devoted his political ambitions to putting Joseph Kennedy Jr. (1915-1944) in the White House. The latter died when his Navy bomber exploded on a combat mission in Europe in 1944, the first of many Kennedys to die violently.
John Kennedy became heir apparent, returning to Boston to take a seat in Congress in 1946 and defeating the prototypical Yankee, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., in 1952. Robert entered politics as an aide to Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, then at the peak of his anti-Communist career. Robert built his reputation as an aide to his brother Senator Kennedy in highly publicized investigations into racketeering in the Teamsters Union, the largest labor union and one that had broken with the Democratic phalanx of the AFL-CIO unions. John Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960 was a family affair, funded by the father and orchestrated by Robert. John preferred Ivy League policy advisors; but unlike his father he enjoyed the give and take of Massachusetts politics and built a largely Irish team of campaigners, headed by Larry O’Brien and Kenneth O’Donnell. The new president shook off nepotism charges and appointed his brother Attorney General in 1961.
The First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1929-1994) added fresh glamor to the family, even as she disdained the roughhousing of her in-laws. Kennedy's 1963 assassination turned JFK into a martyr and, indeed, a saint in the Catholic community. It also shifted the glare of publicity away from Joe (who had suffered an incapacitating stroke) and the surviving children, and onto widow Jacqueline. She remarried and, became in her own right a celebrity who overshadowed her in-laws.
Robert, increasingly at odds with president Lyndon Johnson, resigned the cabinet in 1964 to run for the Senate from New York. In 1968 he broke decisively with Johnson on the issue of the Vietnam War. Liberals who had long distrusted this former McCarthyite rallied to his side, fighting not just the forces of Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, but also those of Eugene McCarthy, a rival Irish Catholic senator who claimed primacy in the antiwar movement. Multiple deep chasms opened in the Democratic party, with the intellectual and radical student wings supporting McCarthy, the southern whites rallying to Alabama's segregationist governor George Wallace, and Kennedy and Humphrey battling for control of the blue-collar white ethnics and the African American voters. At the climax of a bruising, nasty and often violent primary season Robert won the decisive California primary, but was assassinated when he walked to the podium to claim victory. In the presidential election the Irish Catholic vote for the first time splintered, showing that at long last the iron grip of the Democratic party had been permanently broken.
Edward (Ted) Kennedy (1932-2009) became the head of the family and, to the surprise of critics who saw him as shallow and indecisive, emerged as the most successful politician in the family's history. Entering the Senate in 1962, Ted succeeded because of his ability to build coalitions inside the Democratic party and, on occasion, with Republicans. As a tireless campaigner and powerful orator, he used the family reputation to solidify his position as the strongest figure on the left of the Democratic party. His own presidential aspirations collapsed in 1969 when he drove an automobile off a bridge, watching helplessly as his lady companion drowned. When he finally did seek the nomination in 1980, he was badly outmaneuvered by incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter. The old city machines were long gone, the Irish were divided politically, and they no longer acknowledged a Kennedy as automatically entitled to a presidential nomination.
Scandals and tragedy tarnished the third generation, comprising Joe's grandchildren. Two died in violent accidents, another of a drug overdose; one was acquitted in a highly publicized rape trial; an in-law was convicted of murder. Worst of all the younger generation did poorly at politics; none could move higher than the federal House of Representatives. The first woman in the family to run for high office, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (born 1951) lost the traditional Democratic stronghold of Maryland when she ran for governor in 2002. Fresh blood was needed and although the family had never promoted its in-laws, they were astonished to watch the Republican husband of Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger (born 1951) seize the governorship of California in 2003 and emerge as the dominant politician on the West Coast.
The Kennedys were on the Forbes 400 list of richest families until 1993, and no longer are in that very top rank.
Joe made his money in banking, movies, Wall Street, liquor, and real estate. He was a shrewd investor with long-term financial goals. He set up a complex series of trust funds, real estate investments, and oil and gas leases from the 1920s through the 1940s; they still yield income. The trust funds send out checks every month but the recipients have no control over the fund itself.
The main family fortune came from the giant office building the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, which Joe purchased in 1945 for $12.5 million. It has been highly profitable. In 1998, the family sold the Merchandise Mart and other real estate holdings for a total of $625 million and split the money. Different family members received different amounts. Ted Kennedy received about $75 million, while members of the next generation, such as Caroline Schlossberg and John F. Kennedy Jr., received about $38 million each.
In the 1980s, Ted Kennedy's income was about $500,000 a year. In 2007, his net worth was estimated to be as high as $163 million, based on campaign records.
- Michael O’Brien. John F. Kennedy: A Biography (2005)
- Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987)
- Amanda Smith, ed. Hostage of Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy (2001)
- Joe was never a bootlegger, but was the official U.S. distributor for expensive British gin and scotch, and Canadian whiskey. Rose Kennedy's uncle did operate a speakeasy in the 1920s.
- Michael O. Allen, William Goldschlag and Richard T. Pienciak, "Glimpse Inside the Kennedy Fortune" (New York) Daily News February 1 1998