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James Kavanaugh Shea is the son of Mickey Shea and the older brother of future attorney general Danny Shea. He grows up as a tough kid and a womanizer, in New Jersey and even meets Michael Corleone as a child in the 1930s, Due to their fathers doing business together. During World War II he becomes a hero for saving several members of his unit, and wins a medal. In the 1950's he gets married, has a son and daughter and also writes a best selling book which wins several awards.
Later, Jimmy Shea is elected as governor of the state of New Jersey an office which he holds from 1956 to 1960, when he runs for president. He is backed by Michael Corleone at a commission meeting. He is shown to be frequently unfaithful to his wife and dates many starlets, including, at one time, Michael's current girlfriend.
In January of 1961, he has the Central Intelligence Agency director Albert Soffet contact Nick Geraci to lead an assassin squad, who are training in the swamps of New Jersey. This squad is used in 1962 to assassinate a Fidel Castro body double, which almost leads to war with Cuba. He appoints his brother, Danny Shea, the attorney general and they both come down hard on organized crime.
In 1963, his presidency comes under fire when it was discovered that Cuba was hiding missiles for the Soviet Union, which results in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although, Cuba and Russia back down, which makes Shea quite popular in the country. Also at this time, his brother prosecutes New Orleans Mafia Boss Carlo Tramonti.
In 1964, Shea's presidency comes to an abrupt end when he is assassinated after swimming in a Miami hotel pool, he was shaking hands and signing autographs when he was suddenly shot three times by a lone gunman, Juan Carlos Santiago, and Santiago is himself killed seconds later by the Secret Service.
Despite constant references to him in the Godfather sequel novels, there is never any dialogue that involves him speaking in the present, aside from a flashback scene with Michael Corleone, which takes place in the 1930s.