Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Parallels & Differences Between JFK-Nixon And Obama-McCain

On July 15, 1960, John F. Kennedy accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency in a speech he delivered in an outdoor football stadium, the Los Angeles Coliseum. The recent announcement that Barack Obama will follow that precedent when he accepts the Democratic nomination at Invesco Field in Denver on August 28 is but one among many echoes from that momentous election 48 years ago that can be heard reverberating in this one. In addition to the numerous similarities, however, there are a few critical differences. Both the parallels and the divergences are instructive in assessing how the 2008 Election is likely to unfold.

1. Both Kennedy and Obama emphasized change, and in some respects the change they
represented is similar. Some aspects of that change, however, constituted a double-
edged political sword.

2. "Every American election," Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President,
1960, "summons the individual voter to weigh the past against the future." The past,
White said, is the identity and beliefs, including prejudices, that the voter carries with
him. "And the future consists of his fears and dreams."

3. Obama represents a new generation of leadership, as Kennedy did. Kennedy often
stressed this theme of generational change in 1960.

4. Kennedy represented not only Americans of Irish ancestry and Catholics; he was the
first person descended from the ranks of the millions of non-WASP immigrants who had
swelled the American population from the 1840s onward, to reach the presidency.
They would vote for him because he was breaking the barrier for them, too.

Joseph P. Kennedy foresaw this dynamic when he told his son four years before JFK's
election that his victory would show that "this country is not a private preserve for
Protestants. There's a whole new generation out there and it's filled with the sons and
daughters of immigrants from all over the world and those people are going to be
mighty proud that one of their own was running for President. And that pride will be
your spur."

Very much the same dynamic will be aiding Barack Obama in this year's election. His
election would break through the glass ceiling for all sorts of heretofore excluded
groups. All the talk of Latinos not wanting to vote for an African-American (talk
that is now very much belied by poll numbers) goes out the window, because the
feeling will be, if a black or mixed race man can be elected president, someone from
our group can, too. This feeling is likely, as the disappointment over Hillary Clinton
not winning the nomination dissipates, to be widespread among women as well as

5. The other edge of the sword:

Although it is a fact that is now generally forgotten, anti-Catholic prejudice was every
bit as powerful in 1960 as anti-black prejudice is in 2008--quite possibly it was a
stronger force (not as strong as racism was in 1960, but stronger than racism is in

6. "The intertwining of religion and politics laced all through the history and traditions of
America," Theodore White wrote. "Now, in September, the old echo of fear was
slowly being amplified--not only in the border states of Tennessee and Kentucky, but
in downstate Indiana and Illinois, in the farm belt, above all in the South. . . .[T]hese
gut-Democrats were disturbed by this candidate of Roman Catholic faith; and if they
were, so were millions of others.

Substitute "race" for "religion" in the above description of the intertwining of religion
and politics in 1960 and we have precisely the biggest hurdle that Barack Obama faces
in 2008.

7. Kennedy was critical of the loss of American prestige around the world during the
preceding eight years of Republican administration.

Nixon complained that JFK, by declaring that American prestige was at an all-time
low, was "running America down and giving it an inferiority complex."

Change the names and these positions sound exactly like one of the main arguments
this year.

8. Nixon stressed his experience against Kennedy's youth and inexperience. The same,
of course, is John McCain's principal selling point against Barack Obama.

Nixon said that the times were too grave for America to try inexperienced leadership;
McCain says the same.

9. In 2008, as in 1960, Republicans sought to focus the election on foreign policy and
national security. "If you ever let them [the Democrats] campaign only on domestic
issues, they'll beat us--our only hope is to keep it on foreign policy," Nixon warned.

10. JFK became, especially after the first presidential debate, the first political celebrity of
the TV age. Huge crowds, including "jumpers" (young women who leapt into the air
when they saw him) surged around him. Kennedy was a "rock star"--a political Elvis.
All of this, obviously, applies now to Barack Obama.
1. Nixon was a Republican who was relatively young, trying to succeed the oldest
president up until that time, a member of his party who was very popular.

McCain is a Republican who is the oldest presidential candidate, trying to succeed a
younger president, a member of his party who is very unpopular.

2. Dwight Eisenhower had ended a war and "waged peace" for seven-and-a-half years.

George W. Bush started a war and waged war for five-and-a-half years.

3. Ike remained popular. His silence through much of the campaign hurt Nixon, and his
entry into the campaign in its final days helped Nixon.

The opposite is true of Bush, whom McCain needs to keep quiet and out of sight
throughout the campaign.

4. The conventional wisdom this year is that "the future" is Obama's issue, as it was
Kennedy's in 1960. In that year, Nixon claimed the past.

Nixon ran on the "Peace and Prosperity" that he said the president of his party had
produced during the preceding eight years.

McCain can hardly run on the "War and Recession" that the president of his party has
produced during the past eight years.

In 2008, then, the past is as much Obama's issue as the future is.

This comparison of 1960 and 2008 suggests that Barack Obama is in a stronger position this year than John Kennedy was in 1960. But before Senator Obama orders inaugural invitations, he should look at a significant cautionary note in Kennedy's experience in 1960.

For all the advantages the rock star Kennedy had over Nixon, who was literally "the man in the gray flannel suit," a Nixon surge in the last ten days of the campaign nearly defeated JFK.

"How did I manage to beat a guy like this by only a hundred thousand votes?" a baffled Kennedy wondered after the election.

The answer seems to have been fears welling up from deeply ingrained prejudice combining with concern over Kennedy's inexperience. For all the advantages that Barack Obama has this year--advantages that ought to produce, and may well actually produce, a landslide victory for him in November--the same two problems that nearly led to Kennedy losing to Nixon are lurking just below the surface of the 2008 political landscape.
There's still a "Seller Beware" dynamic in play--even when the seller is a master salesman with a vastly superior product. That is the lesson of 1960 that Barack Obama and his campaign must keep in mind from now through November 4.


Brother Tim said...

Well put, Marc! With the many similarities between Kennedy/Obama, let's hope it stops there.

There are also many more differences. Such as Joe Kennedy's powerful political connections and JFK's war-hero experience.

MarcLord said...

Ah, good point about Joe Kennedy, and not wanting too many similarities. Obama doesn't have bootlegging money backing him, or the direct hatred of the Bush family against his family. The glass ceiling is similar, too. It depends on what our country can handle, and how fast.