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JFK: 50 years later

His life fulfilled the Irish dream. His death shattered it.

John F. Kennedy capped his 1960 campaign at Boston Garden. His victory was the summit of Irish political ascendance.

Edmund Kelley/Globe File

John F. Kennedy capped his 1960 campaign at Boston Garden. His victory was the summit of Irish political ascendance.

Into the November night and then through the morning and into another autumn night entirely, his campaign threaded up into New England. With huge crowds gathered in the cold at every stop, it moved through the small towns critical to his hopes and into the big cities congenial to his dreams, until finally — months of gritty, grueling travel at its weary end and the day of presidential balloting only hours away — he entered Boston Garden, then only three decades old but already home to three Boston Celtics championship banners.

It was there, before an overflow crowd, that the leading Boston celtic of his age or of any other entered the arena. With confetti flecking his right shoulder and the strains of “Anchors Aweigh’’ barely audible in the background, Senator John F. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, saluted what he called “the warmest welcome in a long campaign.’’

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A legend, probably true: All around him, on the podium and interspersed in the crowd, were the Irish politicians, great and small, of Boston, and they gazed at him wondrously, with a combination of pride and envy. They studied the mannerisms he displayed on the stage — the crisp handshake with the local grandees, for example, and the way, with palm extended on his left hand, he adjusted his tie and suit coat as he moved to the podium — and they struggled to discern what stealth cipher he had decoded, what divine whisper he had heard, that allowed him, grandson of a North End barkeep and an effervescent mayor, to be on the threshold of being elected president of the United States while they were consigned to spend their lives bickering about proceedings in the city council, the state legislature, the municipal courts.

A truth, now legend: In the long history of Boston and its Irish — two rich, beguiling, complex strands so tightly intertwined that in Kennedy’s time as in ours they cannot be separated — there has never been a Boston moment, an Irish moment, or a Boston Irish moment quite so rich as the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy to the White House.

And, we recognize this week, a half century since the saddest Friday afternoon of our time, a corollary, a truth that goes beyond legend:

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In that long history of tragedy, beginning before the potato blight and the crude early immigrant ships, there has never been a bigger blow to Boston and to its Irish, empowered and ennobled by the election of 1960, than the murder of a president who so personified Boston and its Irish even as he transcended Boston and its Irish. His election culminated the Irish rise to power; his death capped it.

“It was the end of the world,’’ says Jack Connors, the founding partner and chairman emeritus of Hill Holliday, the Boston advertising and marketing powerhouse. “If you had grown up in Roslindale, lived in Dedham, and attended BC, Kennedy made you think everything and anything was possible. The Irish had never seen anything like him. He wasn’t shanty, he wasn’t lace-curtain, he wasn’t two-toilet, he was crystal — Waterford crystal. And then it shattered. Nothing was ever the same again.’’

Nothing was. For the election of John Kennedy was, in effect, the First Hurrah, marking the summit of a long, critical climb in American political history that transformed Irish Catholics in America from desperate immigrants to victimized outcasts to urban political dominance and finally to national political power. And the face of that transformation was not Al Smith of New York (one grandparent German, another Italian, and the 1928 Democratic nominee himself without a high school or college degree) but John Kennedy of Massachusetts (all four grandparents Irish, the 1960 nominee educated at Harvard with a little Princeton and Stanford thrown in).

“The pre-war generation of Irish-Americans in Boston went to their graves thinking that JFK was a saint,’’ says Dick Flavin, the political commentator, writer, and senior ambassador and poet laureate of the Red Sox. “The Irish had made it, even though JFK had more in common with Queen Elizabeth than with my father.’’

The rise and demise of John Kennedy is an American story, to be sure, changing forever the profile of one of the vital chunks in the American melting pot. Partial to irony, possessed of a mordant sense of humor, drawn to politics and to power, determined to make the hyphen in his identity not an incline but a balance beam, JFK resolved to live the American experience but to retain the distinctive character of his forebears. He signaled the future of the Irish in America, not so much assimilating as creating a new way of being Irish and being American.

The Irish Independent said his election symbolized “the closing of a chapter in our history,’’ adding: “After three generations a young man of fully Irish stocks has reached the last point of integration into American life.’’

But Kennedy’s was also a Boston story, an antidote to decades of repression and its handmaiden, resentment. For though Irish-Americans across the nation reveled in his victory and wept in his death, the profile, position, and prospects of the Irish in his home city set them apart, making their joy all the greater in November 1960 at his ceiling-shattering election, their pride all the stronger in January 1961 at his “ask not’’ inauguration, and their despair all the deeper at his Dealey Plaza death in November 1963.

That despair was different — somehow far more profound — in Boston because the Irish of Boston were different. The 35th president of the United States emerged from a milieu altogether different from the Irish in New York (desperate as the poverty of Daniel Patrick Moynihan of Hell’s Kitchen tenements was) or Chicago (stirring as the story of Richard J. Daley of the bungalows of the Bridgeport section of the city was).

Boston was the front line of the war for acceptance and then assimilation for the Irish on this continent, and the 1960 election was a kind of Antietam for absorption into the American mainstream, the moment when emancipation from the shackles of the past became possible. Boston’s barriers were higher than anywhere, very nearly impregnable; Irish immigrants elsewhere streamed into cities whose byways were far less established, with power structures far less fortified, with traditions far less robust, than those they encountered in Boston.

Here the obstacles weren’t just privation but prejudice, and here the letters “N.I.N.A.’’ ring unto the newest generation. (If you don’t know they stand for No Irish Need Apply, you are reading the wrong story, or are not from around here.) Here, as early as 1837, an established newspaper, the Boston Morning Post, would ridicule the immigrant Irish, portraying them as drunks, street brawlers, petty thieves, and clueless greenhorns, laughing that one of their number was capable of wandering into a lumberyard “to pick up a few chips to boil his taykittle in the morning” but being so weak of mind he would be carrying “off a mahogany plank 10 feet long.”

Here the opposition was a sort of domestic Royal Regiment of Fusiliers known as Boston’s Yankees. (The phrase is used far more often by the Irish than by the Yankees themselves, a measure of the ethnic consciousness of the one and of the once-commanding presence and surpassing power of the other.) Here the Irish were victims of rapacious land developers who transformed pockets of the city into what Oscar Handlin, who won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for his chronicle of American immigrants “The Uprooted,” called “the most vicious Boston slums.”

The late Boston College historian Thomas H. O’Connor described the quiet strife that defined Boston as a “David-and-Goliath” story, and in his landmark book,“The Boston Irish,’’ published in 1995, he portrayed “a classic struggle between members of a strong group that had it all and wanted to keep it all and a rising tide of newcomers who wanted to share in the American dream without sacrificing their religious faith, their family values, or their ethnic traditions.’’

Kennedy was a decorated veteran of the world war, a war whose overseas battles and domestic home-front challenges had the unexpected consequence of instantly assimilating many of those of immigrant stock, except of course Germans, Japanese, and to some extent Italians. And there is ample reason to believe that the resistance to the Boston Irish began to give way when, if not because, the young JFK, only a year after war’s end, began to make his way in politics, first by winning a House race in 1946, the same year Richard M. Nixon was elected to Congress; then by defeating Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a prototypical Yankee who had the map of Prides Crossing on his face, in a marquee Senate race in 1952; and finally by defeating Nixon in the presidential campaign of 1960 itself.

Boston’s Yankees hadn’t had a president since 1829; Calvin Coolidge, governor of Massachusetts, 1919-1921, didn’t count, he being a renowned and self-proclaimed Vermonter. Indeed, Boston’s Yankees hadn’t had a substantial national figure since Charles Sumner (Senate, 1851-1874) or Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. (Senate, 1893-1924).

Then, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles — a lyric and sentiment from another one of Boston’s striving groups, this one rooted in the Shalom Aleichem precincts on Blue Hill Avenue — the Yankees, and all of Boston, began to claim Kennedy as their own, and not only because he could sit comfortably in the concrete stands during the Yale game and could sing, in the all-important first-person-plural of “Fair Harvard,” the university alma mater, of “our ancestors’ worth.’’ His ancestors, too.

“The Kennedy effect was more pronounced in Boston, but not because that was where John Kennedy was from,’’ says James R. Barrett, a University of Illinois historian who wrote “The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multi-Ethnic City,’’ published last year. “It is because the feeling that the Irish had been snubbed and repressed was stronger in Boston than anyone else. Though the Irish had made substantial strides in Boston, there was still a chip. They retained that sense of grievance longer than anyone else, and it made this all the more delicious.’’

That sense of grievance, harnessed in the early 20th century by James Michael Curley, gave way, in what we now call the Kennedy years, to a sense of gravity , and, even more, a sense of redemption. Most members of Boston’s Irish community didn’t have a Crimson-in-triumph-flashing father like Joseph P. Kennedy, businessman, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, US ambassador not to Dublin but (so much more prestigious, for being seemingly unattainable) to the Court of St. James’s in London. But all of them had a rosary-in-fingers-praying mother like Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Until 1960, the Boston Irish were separate, apart from the rest. After 1960 they were a part of the rest.

More than their pride in his inaugural address, in his determination to win the moon race, in his steadfastness in crises from the Cold War struggles to the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the tensions in Berlin, it was the space that made that one word into two — the space between “a’’ and “part’’ — that was the Kennedy difference in Southie and in Irish-American hearts around the nation. They were finally and fully in, and he had led them.

Another Kennedy difference: The president didn’t stop being Irish once his election affirmed that he was completely American. Perhaps he listened to the advice the poet Robert Frost gave the new president only two days after he was inaugurated. “Be more Irish than Harvard,’’ he said.

This Irish identification was evident far earlier than Kennedy’s landmark visit to Dunganstown, County Wexford, in 1963, when the flags of both countries flapped in the June breeze. This confident display of ethnic identity was as much a Kennedy family matter as a Kennedy administration decision.

“Their sense of being Irish, of being Catholic, and of being members of a family coming from an oppressed immigrant minority — indeed the very Irish notion of a Kennedy clan, as they often referred to themselves — carried through from one generation to the next,’’ Thomas Maier wrote in “The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings,’’ published in 2004.

This underlined the twin important ironies in the heritage of this man:

It was the movement of the Irish into Protestant America that largely established the very notion of diversity in America, at least among whites. And it was the difficulties that the Irish faced in America that strengthened their sense of identity, steeled them for the struggle ahead, and created the conditions for his triumph, and for theirs.

For on the morning that Kennedy died, the president, the House speaker, the Senate majority leader, and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee were all Irish Catholics. “The era of the Irish politician,’’ wrote Moynihan, astonished at the portrait of power the Irish presented in 1963, “culminated in Kennedy.’’

Indeed, long before Kennedy was born at the end of World War I, the Irish had been steeping themselves in Boston politics and in the struggle for power.

In 1885, Hugh O’Brien became the first Irish mayor of Boston, and a decade later, John F. “Honey Fitz’’ Fitzgerald, of 4 Garden-court St. (just across the road from the residence of the last royal governor of Massachusetts), a parishioner of the storied St. Stephen’s on Hanover Street in the North End, and Kennedy’s grandfather, was elected to the US House, eventually becoming mayor of Boston himself. In 1919, the very year he would introduce Irish President Éamon de Valera at Fenway Park, David Ignatius Walsh became the first Irish senator from Massachusetts. As an astonishingly young state attorney general and then, from 1949 to 1953, governor, Paul Dever reached for glory and a national profile, even mounting a brief presidential effort in 1952.

And yet power wasn’t the only motivator for the Irish surge in politics.

There was Prohibition, and 100-percent-Americanism and the anti-Catholicism embedded in the Bay State Ku Klux Klan as well, and together they rendered the Republican Party, which embraced them all, odious to the Irish. In his classic portrait of Massachusetts politics between 1919 and 1933, J. Joseph Huthmacher wrote, “The Republicans were the old-stock party of Massachusetts, as the Democrats were the Irish party.’’ Ethnic considerations were a political preoccupation; in 1926 the Republicans presented an old-stock statewide ticket, but the Democrats’ ticket consisted of three Irish, two Yankees, one Jew, and one French Canadian.

And there was one other motivation for the Irish in politics. It was a simple two-syllable word that would become the controlling ideal in some of the greatest chapters of the Kennedy story, from the inaugural address to the creation of the Peace Corps to the civil rights struggles to the Kennedy legacy in the late 1960s and beyond. It was service in its multiple meanings — service to one’s own people and then, that charity-begins-at-home obligation discharged, service to others. It was not just a paradigm for a life well lived, but for politics of a kind the Irish quickly excelled at.

“When it comes down to serving the people, the practical politician, whether you call him ward heeler, boss, or henchman, has it all over the genius, the statesman, and the great thinker,’’ said Martin Lomasney, who was for a quarter century beginning in 1896 a prominent Boston Irish politician and boss whose base of power — Ward 8 — also became, at about that time, the name of rye whiskey cocktail (don’t forget the lemon and orange juice). “And this is simply because the practical politician knows mankind and human nature, knows the whims, the fancies, and the needs of the man in the street.’’

Lomasney died in 1933, but the principle still holds. Two generations later, Paul G. Kirk Jr. — graduate of Roxbury Latin and Harvard and great nephew of Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, archbishop of Boston from 1907 to 1944 — would be appointed to the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward M. Kennedy, the last son of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. Kirk was propelled into politics by the inspiration of John Kennedy and was a confidante of Edward Kennedy, and he personifies the effect the Kennedy ascension had on the Irish in Massachusetts and across the country.

“Many of the Irish who didn’t go into the priesthood went into the police and fire departments and the schools as a way into society and to make a living,’’ says Kirk, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “And they went into politics, out of a sense of service and the idea that this was a profession where you could make a difference for folks like themselves. The Kennedy election was a permanent breakthrough — and a ratification of the idea politics was a worthy way to go.’’

Politics was a special Irish forum, and for a time the Kennedy effect was confined to that corner of life — and there was a special poetry to that.

“A people who have produced so many bards, singers, orators, actors, dramatists, poets, and good talkers,’’ William V. Shannon, a onetime New York Times reporter who became the American ambassador to Dublin, wrote, “deserved to have as their greatest political leader a man who loved the language and could use it.’’

Somehow the distance between Kennedy and the more traditional Irish politicians of Boston didn’t matter. In her 1964 taped reminiscences of her life with JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy spoke, wistfully but slightly uncomfortably, of being forced to make small talk with people like the Connecticut River Valley onion farmer and 1952 state Democratic chairman William H. Burke, known as “Onions Burke’’ — “to see that world,” as she put it, much like an anthropologist might describe discovering a peculiarly colorful band of aborigines in the North Midlands of Tasmania — before adding: “and then we’d go have dinner at the Ritz.’’ It is no apostasy to say now that on the national scene House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., whose credibility came from Barry’s Corner in Cambridge and the House, more nearly personified the Boston Irish than did Kennedy, whose credibility came from Harvard Square and the Senate.

For Kennedy was no Frank Skeffington, who in Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 portrayal “The Last Hurrah” proclaimed, “I had no education to speak of, a good many roads were closed to our people, and politics seemed to be the easiest way out.” Kennedy was not looking for a way out, but a way up — the way up his most-demanding father had defined for him. He had his own ideas, and his own style. He would perform some of the Irish political rituals, but not with enthusiasm. “He was his own person, his own campaign, and his own operation,” says Dick Donahue of Lowell, who began his career with Kennedy in the 1952 Senate race and is now the last surviving member of JFK’s Irish Mafia.

That meant that he might do three Knights of Columbus events in a row in Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill but would insist on speaking at political events that were built around what he wanted to accomplish, not what the Knights had scheduled a year earlier. He was a new kind of Irish politician. That was not only his identity, but also his appeal.

And so it is impossible to overestimate the effect on Kennedy’s home city of his 1960 election — and of the resilience of the Kennedy myth in political Boston if not in campus Boston.

In the circles whose spiritual home, at least after 4:30 p.m., is centered on F.J. Doyle’s Braddock Café on Washington Street in Jamaica Plain (where a room is dedicated to Honey Fitz), the Kennedy aura is not dimmed by the fact that he conducted extramarital affairs nor by revisionist views of his conduct of foreign affairs. Perhaps that’s because Kennedy, for all his celebration of the arts, never was content with the careful pleasures of urban life, the kind, like the opera, that are procured by season subscriptions and supported by champagne-and-dessert galas in strained black-tie conviviality. While his wife attended the ballet, Kennedy went to the Army-Navy game. He had an air of ease, to be sure, but possessed no airs — a style that the later peers, princes, and patricians of Boston’s Irish, who were not unfamiliar with the fitting rooms at LouisBoston, affected and then mastered.

In his book “The Irish Americans,’’ Notre Dame historian Jay P. Dolan pointed out that by the 1990s, two of the city’s major banks, the Fidelity Magellan Fund, and The Boston Herald were all run by men with Irish backgrounds. With the appointment of Brian McGrory as editor a year ago, three of the past four news-department leaders of the Globe have been Irish Catholics.

And obstacles fell not just for the Irish. Kennedy — though smooth, refined, elegant — was a disruptive force in Massachusetts politics. He changed the profile of politics itself.

“He gave us something we never had before: pride in an elected official and a sense of vitality,’’ says Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the lone Italian mayor after, and perhaps before, a string of Irish mayors. “We had never seen this kind of charisma before. It was something brand new, and it brought new life to politics. He talked about the future and he gave us hope for a better tomorrow. It was special for Americans, but very special for Boston.’’

The enduring, broader significance of 1960 is that all racial and ethnic minorities took notice and solace.

Jews felt this especially. “That was a golden time,’’ says Sol Gittleman, a professor of German and Judaic studies and former provost at Tufts University. “We all felt a real sense that something momentous was happening. We now know it was something we didn’t see then, that it was a breakthrough for us all. It was a miracle.’’

Still, the election of a man who prayed on his knees every night altered the horizons of all Catholics in all regions of the country. For a third of a century — from 1928 to 1960, almost 20 percent of the entire life of the nation — Catholics had been traumatized by the defeat of Al Smith. In her memoir, “Times to Remember,’’ Rose Kennedy herself spoke of the Smith shadow, reflecting that as her son mounted his presidential campaign, Catholic political figures “knew how important anti-Catholic bias had been in defeating Al Smith’’ in his nomination fight in 1924 and in the general election against Herbert Hoover in 1928.

But November 1960 wiped all that away.

“Once he is elected there were ripples and shock waves that flowed through the political system,’’ says Barbara A. Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s presidential oral history center and author of books on Rose and Jacqueline Kennedy. “After that there was no longer a Catholic seat on the Supreme Court. After that Catholics were hardly considered a minority group anymore. And in Boston, it’s the ultimate thumb in the eye of the Boston Brahmins who made his father flee Boston. The secret of course is that by the time he was elected president, he had become mainstream and national.’’

That ascension made his assassination all the more bitter.

“The death was a blow, a bad blow,’’ says Kevin Phelan, a Boston real-estate executive, “and everyone thought: How did this happen?”

And yet it is striking now, at a half-century’s distance, how hard the Irish took the death of their own hero. Striking — but not at all surprising.

In an essay prepared a year after the assassination, Look magazine senior editor Joseph Roddy captured it in a dispatch from Dublin called “They Cried the Rain Down That Night’’ that recalled how the news was shared five time zones away:

“There are television sets now all over [Dublin] and the lighted ones that night showed a stricken man named Charles Mitchell break in just past seven with a wire report that had to be wrong, but leave a hope to hang on to. He was back not many minutes later to take away the hope and leave Ireland to the darkness of its soul.’’

There was darkness here, too, darkness of the deepest sort, and even in the recollections of revelry — Dick Flavin says, with perfect seriousness and in perfect pitch, that the 1960 election and the 2004 World Series were “the biggest things that happened to this town, bar none’’ — there remain remembrances of the sadness of Nov. 22, 1963.

The depth of that heartache — that is not too strong a word — goes beyond the sorrow of the fire at Cocoanut Grove (1942), the shock of the sinking of the Andrea Doria (1956), the Cold-War mystery of the disappearance of the nuclear submarine Thresher some 200 miles off Cape Cod (1963), mass tragedies all. It lives in the farthest reaches of the Irish spirit and the spirit of Boston itself, chilling the vital force of an entire people — not only the Irish, of course, but especially the Irish.

Three-quarters of a century ago, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who was not Catholic and was not from Boston and was not American and was not alive during the Kennedy administration, somehow in his last year adumbrated the loss of that afternoon 50 Novembers ago, and the enduring legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy:

Whether a man die in his bed

Or the rifle knocks him dead,

A brief parting from those dear

Is the worst man has to fear.

A host of Bostonians alive a half century ago are familiar with the exchange between Pat Moynihan, then the assistant secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration, and Mary McGrory, the Washington Star
columnist from Roslindale and Girls’ Latin, in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination.

“We’ll never laugh again,” she said to Moynihan.

“Mary,’’ he responded, “we will laugh again. But we will never be young again.’’

And therein lies part of the meaning of this moment of memory, and this week’s recollections of soaring pride and devastating sadness. Moynihan died in 2003, McGrory a year later. But it is the special destiny of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the pride of the Irish and of Boston, and especially of Boston’s Irish, to go through eternity at age 46.

As the very same Yeats wrote of an Irish airman shot down over Italy in 1918: “What made us dream that he could comb gray hair?’’ What did?

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a former Washington bureau chief of the Globe and was the 1995 winner of a Pulitzer prize for his correspondence on politics and government. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.
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