At Harvard, it is not uncommon to hear speculation about who could someday be bound for the White House. When former President John F. Kennedy ’40 arrived at the College in 1936, however, few would have made such a prediction.
But eighty years later, JFK’s political dynasty is still alive at the school that helped spur it — thanks, in part, to a family-University relationship unlike any other.
Harvard’s relationship with the Kennedys is one that has lasted more than four generations, transcended traditional boundaries, endured turbulence, and ultimately proven mutually prosperous. It has helped create a political dynasty that has produced a United States president, numerous influential members of Congress, and one of the country’s most prominent schools of government.
Today, a new generation of Kennedys maintains the mantle of the family legacy, as well as its relationship with the school that helped to build it.
As U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) makes an audacious run for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, arousing memories of Camelot for many, the Kennedy family political legacy — one that has never lost when on the ballot in the Bay State — is at a crossroads. And with former U.S. ambassador Caroline B. Kennedy ’80’s headline-grabbing departure from the Harvard Institute of Politics Senior Advisory Committee, the family’s involvement with the University, too, stands at an important juncture.
The Kennedys are not the first bloodline to have produced many prominent Harvard graduates. But since Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. graduated from the College in 1912, the family and the school have held a unique, mutually beneficial relationship that has had lasting implications on the family’s political pursuits and the University’s growth.
After gaining prominence in business and politics, Kennedy Sr. raised his nine children — in particular, the four boys — with exceedingly high expectations.
His sons — Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. ’38, John F. Kennedy ’40, Robert F. Kennedy ’48, and Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy ’54-’56 — all went on to follow in his footsteps by attending the University.
“The Kennedys kind of became part of the ruling class at this time,” said Thomas J. Whalen, a professor at Boston University who has studied the family. “But an institution like Harvard allowed them to stay in that… to kind of pass on these connections to their children. That’s how an elite survives.”
It was the eldest of the Kennedy clan who many expected to gain political prominence even from a young age. But following his death in a plane crash in World War II, the political legacy was left to his brothers to fulfill.
John F. Kennedy, the next oldest of the brothers, entered Harvard with a high school transcript riddled with Cs and Ds. As a freshman living in Weld Hall, Kennedy worked harder to succeed on various Harvard athletic teams than he did at academics: He earned a spot on the swim team, though he left little impression on the coaches. In his sophomore year, after moving into Winthrop House, Kennedy joined the Spee Club, the Hasty Pudding, and The Crimson, where he served as a business editor.
JFK’s brothers, Bobby and Ted, both attended Harvard after him. They, too, were exceedingly focused on athletics during their undergraduate years, earning varsity football letters.
“Being an athlete was like the other kinds of pressure in their life,” said Larry Tye, a Robert Kennedy biographer. “There was an expectation that they would compete. There was an expectation that the only thing worthy, in terms of the way you competed, was if you won.”
“This was Joe Kennedy’s metaphor for what life ought to be like generally,” Tye said. “You had to win things, whether it was competing in a football game or competing in a political campaign.”
After graduating Harvard, serving in World War II, and working briefly as a newspaper reporter, JFK went on to run for Congress in 1946 with strong support from his father. He spent six years in the House before being elected to the Senate twice, and made the leap to run for president in 1960.
Whalen said Harvard played a crucial role in JFK’s entry into politics.
“John Kennedy certainly spent his entire life drawing on those connections,” he said.
When Kennedy was elected to the White House, he brought Harvard with him. He tapped numerous academics to serve in his administration, including National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, and advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. ’38.
“The joke at the time in 1961 was: How do you get to Washington? Well, you go to Harvard Square and turn left,” said former U.S. Representative Barnett “Barney” Frank ’61-’62 (D-Mass.).
Harvard became a part of the fabric of Kennedy’s White House. He returned to Cambridge numerous times following his election, had The Crimson delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and sometimes listened to Harvard football games on the radio.
As president-elect in December 1960, JFK visited Harvard Yard, where he was greeted by thousands of cheering students.
“It’s like feeling like you were at the center of where history was unfolding,” said Marshall L. Ganz ’64-’92, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who was a freshman at the College at the time. “And then when so many faculty went off to D.C. — aside from being pissed off that you didn’t get the course that you wanted to get, like with John Kenneth Galbraith — it was the same thing.”
“There was kind of this proximity to this generation change and this new generation taking power,” Ganz said. “It was very energizing.”
On John F. Kennedy’s final trip to Boston in October 1963, prior to attending a Harvard-Columbia football game, he picked out a location on Harvard’s campus near the bend of the Charles River for the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
One month later, Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK in Dallas, Texas, sending the country — and campus — into a frenzy.
Following his death, a group of JFK’s closest allies, including his two brothers, began working on plans to memorialize him, albeit far sooner than they expected.
The group settled on the creation of a presidential library that would house a museum and his presidential archives. They also debated proposals to create a memorial of Kennedy that would have an ongoing impact on students.
The discussions ultimately led to Harvard’s Graduate School of Public Administration becoming the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and to the founding of the Institute of Politics.
The creation of the Kennedy Library — which was originally supposed to be part of a complex designed by architect I.M. Pei that would house the Kennedy School, the IOP, and several academic departments — was hampered by years of controversy and anger among some Cambridge residents. Community members raised concerns over the influx of tourism a museum would bring to the area.
“It was a brawl,” said Dan H. Fenn Jr. ’44, the JFK Library’s founding director and a current Kennedy School lecturer.
Some residents advocated to keep the archives housed at Harvard but move the museum elsewhere — a proposal Fenn, a former Crimson president, opposed.
Eventually, when building the museum and the archive together in Cambridge became unfeasible, the family gave up on housing the memorial in Harvard Square. In 1979, the library opened on Columbia Point in Dorchester, alongside the archives and museum.
The IOP, which was also mired in controversy in its early days, became the Kennedy family’s chief point of engagement with the University.
Jacqueline L. “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis, JFK’s widow, sat on the Institute’s inaugural Senior Advisory Committee.
Ted Kennedy, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1962 until his death in 2009, also joined the Senior Advisory Committee shortly after its inception and became its most influential member. Committee members said Ted Kennedy never missed a meeting during his time on the committee, which gathers several times per year.
“He was the leading steward of the family,” longtime IOP Advisory Committee member Heather P. Campion said. “He built the Senior Advisory Committee.”
Beyond his engagement with the committee, Ted Kennedy also leaned heavily on Harvard affiliates in his policy work as a senator, according to Scott Ferson, who worked for Kennedy in the ’90s.
“For his legislative work — and for the work he did on health care, education, justice reform, immigration — he very much relied on the experts at Harvard,” Ferson said. “The staff lists from his entirety in the Senate is littered with Harvard degrees.”
The rapid growth of the Kennedy School under former Dean Graham T. Allison Jr. ’62 in the 1970s and 1980s created conflict between the family and the University at times.
Allison found that the Kennedy name hindered fundraising efforts, according to a 1989 New York Times Magazine story about HKS. In printed materials from 1981, for instance, the school abbreviated its name as “HSG,” for the Harvard School of Government, instead of “KSG,” the acronym normally used at the time to refer to the school.
“In any productive relationship,” Ted Kennedy told the Times in 1989, “you’re going to have these blips. I still have some criticisms. I’d like to see them pay less attention to techniques, more to the values of public life. But I’m proud to have our name on the school and I think my brother would have been too.”
Though the Kennedy family has always maintained strong ties to the IOP, this year brought significant change to the Institute’s Advisory Committee leadership.
In February, the Advisory Committee saw a major shakeup as Caroline B. Kennedy ’80, JFK’s daughter, and Kenneth M. Duberstein stepped down as its honorary chairs. Joe Kennedy III is now the only member of the Kennedy family who is officially involved with the IOP.
Caroline Kennedy — who served as U.S. Ambassador to Japan under President Barack Obama — took on a bigger role on the Advisory Committee following the death of her brother, John F. Kennedy Jr. JFK Jr. had worked closely with Campion on improving the forum, which was dedicated to him in 2003, four years after he was killed in a plane crash.
“As an undergrad and just after I graduated, I attended a lot of meetings with my mother and my uncle, and then with John as he became very engaged and really sort of gave the IOP — and the forum in particular — a real burst of energy through his involvement,” Caroline Kennedy said in an interview with The Crimson.
“After he died, I started becoming more engaged with my uncle Teddy,” she added. “And then after he died I’ve continued to stay engaged and work hard to make sure the IOP stays true to its spirit and mission.”
Caroline Kennedy declined to comment on the specific reasons for her departure.
“My goal is to make sure the IOP stays true to its founding ideals and mission and is inspirational and innovative, nimble and dedicated to public service, and committed to undergraduates primarily,” she said.
Asked if she would consider rejoining the board in the future, however, she left the door open to the possibility.
“I need to make sure that I can do what I just said, or that everybody is committed to that same set of ideals,” she said. “And then I would be thrilled to come back.”
The Washington Post reported in February that Caroline Kennedy clashed with Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, and that she and other committee members felt he micromanaged the IOP.
“There were issues between her and school officials over the role of the Senior Advisory Committee and over her role at the IOP and just the structure,” Advisory Committee member Richard L. Berke said in an interview with The Crimson.
“It is critically important that Caroline be a central figure in the leadership of the IOP,” Berke said. “I’m hopeful that the Harvard administration will go all out to try to get her back.”
IOP Director Mark D. Gearan ’78 said in an interview that he, too, hopes to get Caroline Kennedy back on the committee.
“She has been so constructively engaged with our students and so helpful to the Institute of Politics,” Gearan, a former Crimson editor, said. “It would be very helpful to continue her engagement and her passion for the Kennedy School, for Harvard, and for the Institute. That would be, certainly, my hope.”
Today, the Kennedy legacy is back on the ballot in Massachusetts.
The only Kennedy currently holding public office in the state, Joe Kennedy III, is challenging U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in a closely-watched primary.
Tye, the Robert Kennedy biographer, said the young Kennedy’s brand of politics is reminiscent of his grandfather’s.
“I would say that Joe III, in lots of ways, is the closest thing the Kennedys have come to producing another Bobby Kennedy since Bobby Kennedy,” Tye said.
Robert Kennedy served in the Senate from New York and as his brother’s attorney general before being killed while running for president in 1968.
Following his high school days at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Joe Kennedy III did not follow the family tradition of attending Harvard and instead matriculated at Stanford as an undergraduate.
“To have family members of mine that were alumni [at Harvard] was a great source of pride for me,” Kennedy said in an interview with The Crimson.
“I, for a variety of reasons, having grown up basically in its backyard and having a family that had pretty deep roots in Massachusetts, just wanted to go some place a bit new, and try something a bit new,” he added.
After his undergraduate years and a stint in the Peace Corps, Kennedy returned to Cambridge for law school at Harvard.
Harvard Law School classmates described Kennedy as friendly but low-key, and as a talented quarterback in the flag football league.
“He was friends with pretty much everyone in our section,” said Patrick T. Childress, one of Kennedy’s Law School section mates. “He was always just very relatable and friendly.”
Childress, who was friends with Kennedy, said Kennedy didn’t express plans to run for office during his time at the Law School. But after several years working as a prosecutor, Kennedy won a U.S. House seat in Massachusetts’s Fourth Congressional District.
With his Harvard degree, famous surname, and progressive politics, Joe Kennedy III seems to have many of the same tools his grandfather and great-uncles did. His very appeal in the state still rests, in some part, upon his claim to familial fame.
Nicholas Karnovsky ’19, a 2016 IOP Director’s Intern in Kennedy’s district office, said that legacy “was definitely part of the appeal” of his position.
“While when I interned with him back in 2016, he was still a fairly new congressman, it was pretty clear, to me at least, that he was going somewhere,” Karnovsky said. “He’s the type of person you want to attach your anchor to.”
“I’m not at all surprised that he’s running for the Senate now, given just his accomplishments and his credentials. I think the Senate is step two, who knows what step three might be,” he added. “That was certainly why I was interested.”
Like many of his family members, Kennedy has, too, reaped the rewards of Harvard connections. His introduction of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), his former Law School professor, at the Democratic National Convention put him in the national spotlight in 2016.
Kennedy, who has long been the beacon of establishment politics in the Bay State, has tried to distinguish himself — but hasn’t shied away from his family’s reputation in doing so.
“I think the lesson that I take from my family’s participation in public life has been one that has not been afraid to challenge the structures and institutions of our society to, in fact, be bigger, dream bolder, and deliver more,” he said. “I believe that’s what politics is supposed to do.”
“The role of people in it is not to work your way into an establishment platform and then enjoy the comforts that are provided by it, but to recognize that if that establishment is in fact going to deliver on the promises that we make to our people, then that establishment needs to be constantly be pushed and to constantly be driven to be more and to focus even more deliberately in the ways in which we fall short,” he added.
Asked if, in his current race, his family legacy and Harvard background are an asset or a burden, Kennedy didn’t miss a beat.
“Without question, I’m proud of both,” he said.