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.

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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."

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.

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.

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