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JFK One-Liners: Presidential Wit and More

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President John F. Kennedy managed to seduce reporters with witty retorts to their questions during presidential news conferences. Many JFK one-liners are still remembered, such as his observation that “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”

His childhood friend Lem Billings remembered his sense of humor before he moved into the White House. “I’ve never known anyone in my life with such a wonderful humor — the ability to make one laugh and have a good time,” Billings once said.

Lem Billings and the future president. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Here, then, is a collection of JFK one-liners from well before and during his presidency.

Early JFK One-Liners

His mother, Rose, remembered him as a funny little boy. He once said to her, “Daddy has a sweet tooth, hasn’t he? I wonder which one it is.”

He also had a sharp tongue, which he directed at his mother.  Rose didn’t show her children much warmth and took long trips away from her family. Just before she left on one journey, five-year-old Jack said, “Gee, you’re a great mother to go away and leave your children all alone!”

JFK in his first Communion suit. Image courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

In Sickness

Throughout his life, he suffered through a series of illnesses. At Harvard, he was rushed to the hospital with an illness the doctors misdiagnosed as leukemia. He wrote to a girlfriend.

Took a peek at my chart yesterday and could see that they were mentally measuring me for a coffin.

He also had chronic back pain and several surgeries to correct it. After one unsuccessful operation, he wrote,

In regard to the fascinating subject of my operation, I …will confine myself to saying that I think the doc should have read just one more book before picking up the saw.

World War II

Kennedy joined the Navy during World War II and commanded a PT boat in the South Pacific.

The most famous JFK one-liner during his naval career wasn’t funny.

Kennedy aboard PT-109. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

A Japanese destroyer had rammed his boat in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy swam for five hours to an island, a wounded shipmate on his back. He held on to the man by clenching his lifejacket straps in his teeth. Kennedy carved a message for help in a coconut and sent it with a native.


Rescued after seven days on the island, he came home a hero. As president, someone asked him how he got to be a hero.

“It was involuntary,” he said. “They sank my boat.”

Before the Japanese sank his boat, he had already grown disillusioned with the war effort. In a letter, he expressed his cynicism. “We are at a great disadvantage–the Russians could see their country invaded, the Chinese the same,” he wrote. “The British were bombed, but we are fighting on some islands belonging to the Lever Company, a British concern making soap.” And then:

I suppose if we were stockholders we would perhaps be doing much better, but to see that by dying at Munda you are helping to secure peace in our time takes a larger imagination than most possess.

After his boat sank, he had little use for the desk duty to which he was assigned.

“Once you get your feet upon the desk in the morning, the heavy work of the day is done,” he wrote to a friend.

His brother Robert joined the Naval Reserve in Boston while in his senior year of high school. Their parents had sent Jack a clipping of Robert taking the oath. He wrote to Robert, “The sight of you up there, just as a boy, was really moving, particularly as a close examination showed that you had my checked London coat on.”


After the war, Kennedy decided to run for Congress from the Massachusetts district once represented by John Quincy Adams.

His father spent lavishly on his House campaign and interfered with the decision making. When one of his campaign aides objected, Kennedy said, “I know you’re right about this, but Dad’s putting up the money and we have to let him win a couple.”

Congressman John F. Kennedy

On the campaign trail, he was late to a communion breakfast in Chicopee, Mass. He urged his driver to speed up, and he did. Kennedy than turned to his seatmate, Billy Sutton, and said,

Billy, if we get into an accident, you’ll have to remain conscious to that you can give our names, but more important than that, don’t forget to tell the reporters I was in a state of grace.

Once elected, he only lasted three terms in the House, which didn’t satisfy his ambition.

We were just worms in the House–nobody paid much attention to us nationally,” he later said.

And so in 1952 he ran for Senate against incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the incumbent. It was a classic Boston grudge match: Lodge’s grandfather had defeated Kennedy’s grandfather for the seat in 1916. “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names,” Kennedy once said.

Though considered a long shot, Kennedy beat Lodge by about 70,000 votes, helped by his father’s cash. He spent five times more than Lodge on the campaign. Joe Kennedy had a one-liner of his own:

It takes three things to win in politics. The first is money, the second is money, and the third is money.

The Senate

Even before he ran for Senate, Jack Kennedy had his eye on the White House. He knew he needed a wife, and in 1953 he married Jacqueline Bouvier. She fascinated the public as much as he did. Once, as president, he introduced himself during a press conference in Paris.

I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.

September 1953 Hammersmith Farm, Newport, Rhode Island Wedding of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier. Photograph in the Toni Frissell Collection, Library of Congress.

In the Senate, Kennedy grew into a political star.

Tip O’Neill once wrote that until Kennedy won election to the Senate, “You just couldn’t imagine that he was really going anywhere.”

In 1960, Kennedy announced his candidacy for president of the United States. He won the Democratic Party nomination, which prompted another JFK one-liner: “Do you realize the responsibility I carry? I’m the only person standing between Richard Nixon and the White House.”

His father again spent heavily on his son’s campaign. Kennedy acknowledge as much on the campaign trail.

“I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy,” he said: “’Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide’.”

When asked his favorite song, he replied, “I think ‘Hail to the Chief’ has a nice ring to it.”

President JFK One-Liners

Kennedy didn’t lose his sense of humor as president.

He defended his choice of his 35-year-old brother as attorney general. “I see nothing wrong with giving Robert some legal experience as Attorney General before he goes out to practice law,” he said.

JFK and his brother Robert. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

He said he liked the job.

I have a nice home, the office is close by, and the pay is good.

However, he faced serious challenges.

“When we (The Democrats) got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.”

He joked about his approval rating after a vacation in Florida.

“I’ve been back in touch with my constituents and seeing how they felt,” he said.  “And frankly I’ve come back to Washington from Palm Beach, and I’m against my entire program.”

He had a rocky relationship with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. When asked why he didn’t fire Hoover, Kennedy said, “You can’t fire God.”

Last Words

Kennedy’s life ended on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

The First Lady and President arrive in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

His last words before an assassin’s bullet struck him were mundane, but ironic.

Nellie Connally, the wife of Texas Gov. John Connally, was traveling in the open limousine with him. “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you,” she said.

“No, you certainly can’t,” he said.

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