Competitiveness, in the world and against each other, was the overriding Kennedy family value. Joe was "a father with very high expectations and wanted the boys to win at sports and everything they tried," says JFK's biography at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
Joe Jr. and Jack, the two oldest boys, competed so fiercely that some contests ended in injuries. Bzdek says the rivalry extended to the brothers' World War II exploits and may have led to Joe Jr.'s death.
The trigger was a night in August 1943, when a Japanese warship sliced in half a Navy Patrol Torpedo boat commanded by Jack. Ten of the 12 men on board the PT-109 survived the ordeal, in large part because of Jack's decisions.
Jack returned to a hero's welcome. Bzdek says a friend found Joe Jr. crying upstairs in his room while downstairs the family was celebrating Jack's valor. Joe, a naval aviator, "started volunteering for riskier and riskier missions even after he was supposed to come home," Bzdek says. "He wanted to show his courage and really outshine his brother."
Joe Jr. had been groomed to be the family's first political star. But in 1944, his explosives-laden plane detonated in flight, and he was killed.
Still determined to launch the Kennedy political brand, Joe moved on to Jack. Together the pair ushered in a political era of marketing, media, money and personality. "The Kennedy family forever dissolved the line between celebrity and politics," Bzdek says.
It started with Joe Kennedy and his combination of money, moxie and film-industry experience. He deployed all three in his own career and later in Jack's races for the U.S. House (1946), the Senate (1952 and 1958) and the presidency (1960).
One example: John Hersey had published an account of the PT-109 incident in 1944 in The New Yorker. Joe pushed to have it written and distributed 100,000 copies "to show Jack was a war hero," Bzdek says.
The family also marketed itself on TV. Jack was a natural and used the medium "to an unprecedented degree" in his 1952 Senate race, Whalen says. Eight years later, his TV presence helped him squeak to the presidency.
The Kennedys were pioneers in making the personal the political. Joe Sr. was "the first political figure to use his family as a political device," Leamer says, even encouraging journalists to interview his children.
Later, when his sons were running for office, the family participated in personal TV ads akin to half-hour infomercials. Voters were invited to hold viewing parties and call in to the programs with questions.
The first ad, "Coffee With the Kennedys," aired twice in 1952, once on each of the two TV stations in Massachusetts. "It was blatantly aimed at the women," says Allan Goodrich, chief archivist at the Kennedy library.
In the program, Rose and her daughters sat on couches and chatted about the family. Then JFK appeared, spoke to the audience and took call-in questions fielded by his sisters. In 1962, for Ted's Senate race, Rose showed off her home in Hyannis Port, Mass., and introduced her daughter-in-law, Joan, and the couple's children.
The Kennedys cultivated their image as American royalty. Political events included parties and teas, with ballroom dancing and receiving lines. Imagine getting home from your job as a factory worker, Whalen says, and finding between the bills in your mailbox a gold-engraved invitation to a fancy tea party hosted by the Kennedys.