John F. Kennedy served in Congress for fourteen years, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. Returning from World War II, where he won a decoration for bravery after the PT boat he commanded was sunk, he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1946. He served in the House from January 3, 1947 until January 3, 1953.
As a member of the House, Kennedy was from a “safe district” meaning that he was fairly certain of easy re-election as long as he wanted to keep his seat. He was marked early as an up and coming leader, and there was talk of Kennedy becoming Speaker of the House in the next ten or fifteen years. He gave up his “safe seat” and future prospects to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy ran for the Senate in a difficult year for Democrats, another reason his friends and colleagues warned him to remain in his safe seat in the House. In 1952, General Eisenhower was at the head of the Republican ticket, and many Democrats normally considered a safe bet for re-election were in trouble. In addition, Kennedy was running against one of the most popular, most powerful Senators in the country, Henry Cabot Lodge. In that Republican year, Lodge was considered a shoo-in for re-election.
The predictions came true around the nation. The Democrats lost so many races to the Republicans that the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for only the second time since 1928. Popular, powerful Democratic Senators and Representatives went down to defeat. But Kennedy surprised the nation by defeating Senator Lodge in spite of Eisenhower’s presence on the Republican ticket, one of the only Democratic high points on election night.
Immediately, Kennedy became a center of attention. He was a Democrat who had moved up from the House to the Senate in the year of the Eisenhower-led Republican landslide. He had defeated a powerful Senator considered unbeatable in a normal year, but even more so in that year. He was also young and handsome and single. He received a lot of attention in the press for all of these reasons.
Kennedy was re-elected to the Senate in 1958 by a large majority. In 1956, he had run for the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination, but lost. He had finished a respectable second, and gained even more national attention. This made him a major candidate for the 1960 Presidential nomination. He served in the Senate from January 3, 1953 until December 22, 1960 when he resigned following his election as President of the United States. While in the Senate, he served as chairman of the Special Committee on the Senate Reception Room. He also served as a member of the Government Operations Committee, the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee and the Joint Economic Committee. In 1955, while recovering from back surgery, Kennedy wrote “Profiles in Courage” about Senators who had shown political courage. His book won the Pulitzer Prize.
John Kennedy’s term as President ended suddenly when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, one of two Presidents buried there.
Lyndon B. Johnson was Kennedy’s Vice President. He had run against Kennedy for the nomination, and lost to Kennedy. When Kennedy asked him to join the ticket in the number two spot, Johnson surprised many by accepting. As Majority Leader of the Senate, Johnson had been Kennedy’s boss, and now the roles would be reversed. It was not Johnson’s style to run for second place.
After teaching high school for a few years, Johnson served as secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg from 1931 to 1935. He then served as state director of the National Youth Administration of Texas from 1935 to 1937. In 1937, Congressman James P. Buchanan died and Johnson won the special election to fill his seat. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from April 10, 1937 until January 3, 1949. In the days after Pearl Harbor, Johnson became the first member of Congress to take leave and enlist in the military. He served in the Pacific as a lieutenant commander in the navy and won the Silver Star for bravery. His military service was cut short when President Roosevelt ordered all Congressmen to return to Washington. Johnson then served on the Naval Affairs Committee and then on its successor the Armed Services Committee. He was chairman of the Naval Affairs Special Subcommittee that investigated waste in the conduct of the naval war. He was consistently one of President Roosevelt’s strongest supporters.
In 1948, Johnson ran for the U.S. Senate. In Texas at the time, the Democratic candidate always won, so the trick was winning the Democratic primary. His opponent was Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. Johnson defeated Stevenson by a mere 87 votes out of almost a million votes cast. This led to charges of ballot box stuffing (probably true, since the last 100 or so names in one precinct were in alphabetical order and in the same handwriting) and the nickname “Landslide Lyndon.” In 1954, he was re-elected by a 3-1 margin in the Democratic primary. In the Senate, Johnson served on the Armed Services Committee (1949-1960), the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee (1949-1955), the Finance Committee (1955-1957), and the Appropriations Committee (1957-1960). Always a strong supporter of the national space program, Johnson also served as the first chairman of the Senate Aeronautics and Space Sciences Committee (1959-1960).
In 1951, Johnson was elected as the Democratic whip, the second highest position among the Senate Democrats. In 1953, Johnson was elected Minority Leader of the Senate (his party had lost control of the Senate in the Republican sweep of 1952 mentioned earlier). When the Democrats regained control of the Senate two years later, Johnson at 46 became the youngest Majority Leader in the history of the Senate. The next year, Johnson suffered a major heart attack but recovered quickly and returned to the Senate.
Until 1957, Johnson routinely voted with his southern colleagues against civil rights legislation. It was all the more remarkable then that it was Johnson who engineered the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. Johnson also used his position and influence to convince southern Senators not to filibuster the bills to death. His role in this issue marked his change from a regional politician to a national political leader. It also foreshadowed his strong position for Civil Rights after he became President.
In 1956, he was a “favorite son” candidate for President, and received 80 votes at the Democratic convention that re-nominated Adlai Stevenson for President. He was considered a leading candidate for the Presidential nomination at the 1960 Democratic convention, but lost to Kennedy 806-409 on the first ballot. Kennedy, knowing the race against Richard Nixon would be close, asked Johnson to join him on the ticket and Johnson accepted. With its two strongest candidates on the ticket, the Democrats managed to win a very close election over Richard Nixon who had been favored to win.
When Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson became President. He was elected to a full term of his own in 1964 by a record landslide. He continued in his New Deal (the name for Franklin Roosevelt’s social programs) politics, declaring War on Poverty and enacting his Great Society programs. He also pushed for Civil Rights legislation, getting the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the Congress. The war in Vietnam grew and overshadowed his humanitarian social program, and he declined to run for re-election in 1968.