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.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

In the first round of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama has, to some people's surprise, been drawing less enthusiasm from black voters than from upscale whites. (Black voters, despite some recent shifts, still prefer Hillary.) Efforts to explain this discrepancy have focused on the reaction of black voters to Obama; one hypothesis holds that Obama, as the son of a Kenyan, strikes many blacks as unrepresentative of them. But the flip side of the question hasn't really been asked: What explains Obama's robust showing with white liberals?

Some elements of the answer are obvious: his high-toned oratory, his promises of reconciliation in a divisive time, a background in community organizing that suggests both idealism and a talent for problem-solving. But another clue may lie in the presidential bid of a figure Obama's devotees love to invoke: John F. Kennedy.

Advertisement

When answering the charge that the Illinois senator lacks the record of achievement befitting a White House aspirant, Obama's backers often stack him next to JFK. Obama is 44, they note, older than JFK was when he ran. Skeptics derided JFK, as they now do Obama, as callow and ill-versed in substantive issues. And yet Obama, similar to JFK, manages to inspire people with sex appeal, cerebral cool, and a message of generational change. Like all historical analogies, this one has limits: JFK had logged 14 years in Congress when he became president, compared with the four Obama will have by 2008. For all these surface similarities, however, the most important aspect of Kennedy's campaign mirrored in Obama's may be the way that JFK handled his Catholicism. In the 1960 campaign, Kennedy turned his religion from a liability into an asset. Obama seems to be doing the same thing with his race.

John F. Kennedy. Click image to expand.
John F. Kennedy

When Kennedy began eyeing the presidency in the late 1950s, no Catholic had led a national ticket since 1928, when New York Gov. Al Smith was routed by Republican Herbert Hoover. Although the seven fat years that preceded that election sealed Hoover's win, anti-Catholic sentiment—latent and overt—hurt Smith. Even 32 years later, experts thought that many Protestants wouldn't pull the lever for a Catholic. Kennedy's aides debated what to do. Most wanted to dodge the issue and hope that the toleration that had prevailed in America since World War II would keep Kennedy's creed from deterring too many voters. Some advisers even feared that raising the religion issue would only fan it.

The alternate strategy was to deal with voters' concerns explicitly. Only a minority of Kennedy's aides preferred this approach. But one was Kennedy's influential pollster, Lou Harris, and Kennedy came to agree with his advice. They chose the West Virginia primary, a state that was just 5 percent Catholic, as the forum in which to take on the issue. Kennedy's rival was Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, a favorite of labor and of liberals—and a Protestant. Kennedy invested a fortune in the state, but as the May 10 primary neared, he found himself down 20 points. Previous primaries that year had trained media attention on Kennedy's religion, lowering his numbers in Appalachia.

To climb back, Kennedy staged a half-hour televised interview with Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. FDR's name was gold in the poor mining state whose residents remembered the New Deal with deep gratitude. For about one-third of the broadcast, JFK answered frank questions from FDR Jr. about his Catholicism. The candidate said that if elected president, he would take his oath to uphold the Constitution on a Bible—and thus if he broke that vow, he would not only deserve impeachment but would also be "sinning against God."

At one level, Kennedy seemed only to be pleading that his loyalty to country preceded his loyalty to any religious dictates—that he could be trusted. Indeed, Kennedy, of all politicians, had the best chance of defusing what anti-Catholic bigotry remained in America, since he didn't fit the negative, atavistic Catholic stereotypes that some people harbored. In words that evoke some recent unfortunate comments about Obama, David Halberstam noted that to voters in 1960, Kennedy looked "stylish and fresh and clean, his tailoring and his coiffing reeked of elegance and tradition, the first Irish Brahmin, the Irishman as Wasp." Hard-core haters would never back him, but to mildly intolerant Americans, "the sight of the young, slim, modern, attractive Kennedy, free as he seemed to be of restraints and prejudices of the past, erased their suspicions."

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The NFL Has No Business Punishing Players for Off-Field Conduct. Leave That to the Teams.

Meet the Allies the U.S. Won’t Admit It Needs in Its Fight Against ISIS

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Medical Examiner

How to Stop Ebola

Survivors might be immune. Let’s recruit them to care for the infected.

History

America in Africa

The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.

New GOP Claim: Hillary Clinton’s Wealth and Celebrity Are Tricks to Disguise Her Socialism

Why the Byzantine Hiring Process at Universities Drives Academics Batty

Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 3:29 PM The Fascinating Origins of Savannah, Georgia’s Distinctive Typeface
  News & Politics
History
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM America in Africa The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Education
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM Why Your Cousin With a Ph.D. Is a Basket Case  Understanding the Byzantine hiring process that drives academics up the wall.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 23 2014 11:37 PM How to Stop Ebola Could survivors safely care for the infected?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?