How Obama is like JFK.

The history behind current events.
April 20 2007 1:31 PM

Playing the Tolerance Card

How Obama is like JFK.

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Beyond defensively reassuring the slightly prejudiced, however, Kennedy was also making a more ingenious, offensive play. Harris conceived a strategy of framing the Catholicism issue as one of voters' open-mindedness. As Theodore H. White wrote in The Making of the President, 1960:

Two Democratic candidates were appealing to the commonality of the Democratic Party; once the issue could be made one of tolerance or intolerance Hubert Humphrey was hung. No one could prove to his own conscience that by voting for Humphrey he was displaying tolerance. Yet any man, indecisive in mind on the Presidency, could prove that he was at least tolerant by voting for Jack Kennedy. The shape of the problem made it impossible for Humphrey, the most tolerant of men, to run in favor of tolerance. Only Kennedy could campaign on this point and still win in good taste and without unfairness.

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After the TV interview with FDR, Harris' surveys showed a sharp switch, reflected in the pollster's own encounters with West Virginians. "I remember going back to one particular one the Monday before the election, after the TV speech on religion," Harris told White. "And she took me in and pulled down the blinds and said she was going to vote for Kennedy now. 'We have enough trouble in West Virginia, let alone to be called bigots, too.' "

Outplayed (and outspent), Humphrey lost badly. Late on the night of the primary, he withdrew his candidacy for the nomination. "I think," Kennedy said at a press conference, "we have now buried the religion issue once and for all." West Virginians hadn't exactly voted for Kennedy because he was Catholic. Indeed, he had needed to dispel their biases against Catholics simply to gain a hearing. But once he had gained that hearing, he flipped the issue on its head, and thereafter his religion subtly enhanced his other appealing qualities—including the message that as an emissary of a new generation, freed from the constraining assumptions of the past, he would offer new solutions to America's problems, including those of diversity and toleration.

In subsequent years, members of minority groups seeking high office have emulated this strategy. When Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman sought the vice presidency in 2000, the presence of a Jew on a ticket provoked much chatter, especially since Lieberman (unlike most American Jews) is Orthodox. Most of us had expected that the first Jew on a national ticket would be someone whose religion would go largely unnoticed, like Dianne Feinstein or Arlen Specter—picked because his or her Judaism didn't matter. Lieberman was picked because his Judaism did matter. It mattered, in part, because it tacitly invited voters to feel ennobled by voting for a visibly devout Jew—an invitation the candidate extended in a convention speech that declared, "Only in America." Although by 2000 few voters remained who were likely to be moved by anti-Semitism, Lieberman still turned his religion from a nonfactor into a net plus.

Similarly, few people support Obama solely, or mainly, because he's black. But if his strategists are thinking as Kennedy's did in 1960, they may be calculating that his race can subtly enhance his other attractive qualities. Having passed a threshold among most white voters, his race can implicitly encourage them to feel that a vote for Obama is a vote for tolerance, for a future free of the constricting prejudices of the past, and for a sense of hope that Jack Kennedy once evoked.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.