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Ghosts of 1960

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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 emphasize(d) change, and in some respects the change they represent(ed) is similar. Some aspects of that change, however, constitute(d) 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 2008).

6. "The intertwining of religion and politics laced all through the history and traditions of America," 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."

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Robert S. McElvaine is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of ten books. He is a frequent contributor to the op ed pages of the major national newspapers and blogs for the Huffington Post. His latest book is "Grand Theft (more...)
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