At first glance, the Democratic nominee for president in 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy—the millionaire Caucasian war hero for whom I worked for eleven golden years—seems notably different from the most interesting candidate for next year's nomination, Senator Barack Obama. But when does a difference make a difference? Different times, issues, and electors make any meaningful comparison unlikely. But the parallels in their candidacies are striking.
Fifty years ago, Kennedy and I embarked on a period in which we traveled to all 50 states in his long, uphill quest for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. He was, like Obama, a first-term U.S. senator. But he was not yet 40 years old, making Obama, already 45, a geezer by comparison.
At the time, Washington pundits assumed Kennedy had at least two insurmountable obstacles. The first was his lack of experience, especially compared with the senior statesmen also seeking that nomination—Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, and Stuart Symington. Kennedy acknowledged that his age and inexperience would turn away some voters. Obama, though older than Kennedy, is similarly dismissed by some today. But Kennedy noted in one speech that "experience is like tail-lights on a boat which illuminate where we have been when we should be focusing on where we should be going."
Kennedy's second major obstacle was his heritage. Some said he had lost his chance to be president of the United States the day he was born—or, at least, the day he was baptized as a Roman Catholic. No Catholic had ever been elected president of the United States, and the overwhelming defeat suffered by the only Catholic nominated for that position, Governor Al Smith of New York in 1928, had persuaded subsequent Democratic leaders that it would be hopeless ever to risk that route again. The conviction that no Catholic could win was greater, in that less enlightened era 50 years ago, than the widespread assumption today that a black presidential candidate cannot win. The subtly bigoted phrase most often repeated in that election year—by former President Harry Truman, among others—was that 1960 was "too early" for a Catholic president, that the country was "not ready," and that Kennedy should be a "good sport" by settling for the vice presidency. No doubt Obama will hear—or has already heard—similar sentiments about the color of his skin.
Even some Catholic religious leaders—who thought Kennedy was not Catholic enough, having attended secular schools and expressed disagreement with the Catholic hierarchy on church-state separation—opposed his candidacy. So did some Catholic political leaders who thought his candidacy might raise unwanted controversies or produce an unwanted rival to their own positions (much as Al Sharpton and Vernon Jordan may not initially welcome an Obama candidacy). But, in time, Kennedy's speeches and interviews strongly favoring traditional church-state separation reassured all but the most bigoted anti-Catholics. In the end, despite his ethnic handicap, Kennedy proved to be less divisive than his major opponent, fellow senator Hubert Humphrey. Obama may prove the same.
In addition to their similar handicaps, Kennedy and Obama share an extraordinary number of parallels. Both men were Harvard-educated. Both rose to national attention almost overnight as the result of starring roles at the nationally televised Democratic convention preceding their respective candidacies: Kennedy in 1956, when he delivered the speech nominating Stevenson and subsequently came close to winning an open-floor struggle for the vice presidential nomination with Estes Kefauver; Obama in 2004, by virtue of his brilliant speech to the convention that year in Boston.
Both also gained national acclaim through their best-selling inspirational books—Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, published in 1956, and Obama's The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006. Both men immediately stood out as young, handsome, and eloquent new faces who attracted and excited ever larger and younger crowds at the grassroots level, a phenomenon that initially went almost unnoticed by Washington leaders and experts too busy interviewing themselves.
Kennedy's speeches in early 1960 and even earlier, like Obama's in early 2007, were not notable for their five-point legislative plans. Rather, they focused on several common themes: hope, a determination to succeed despite the odds, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and confidence in the judgment of the American people. In sprinkling their remarks with allusions to history and poetry, neither talked down to the American people. JFK was so frank about his disagreements with the leadership of his Catholic "base" that one Catholic journal editorialized against him; Obama was equally frank and courageous with the Democrats' organized labor base in assessing the competitive prospects of the American auto industry in Detroit. Both were unsparing in their references to the"revolving door" culture in Washington.
On foreign policy, both emphasized the importance of multilateral democracy, national strength as a guardian of peace, and the need to restore America's global standing, moral authority, and leadership. Both warned of the dangers of war: Kennedy motivated by his own harsh experience in World War II, Obama by his familiarity with suffering in all parts of the world. Both were cerebral rather than emotional speakers, relying on the communication of values and hope rather than cheap applause lines.
Perhaps most tellingly, both preached (and personified) the politics of hope in contrast to the politics of fear, which characterized Republican speeches during their respective eras. In 1960 and earlier, cynics and pessimists accepted the ultimate inevitability of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, much as today they assume a fruitless and unending war against terrorism. Hope trumped fear in 1960, and I have no doubt that it will again in 2008.
Although President Kennedy became the breakthrough president on civil rights, health care, and other liberal issues, he was not the most liberal candidate for the nomination in 1960. His emphasis on the importance of ethics, moral courage, and a multilateral foreign policy made him—like Obama—hard to pigeonhole with a single ideological label. His insistence that the United States "must do better" in every sphere of activity, including its cold war competition with the Soviet Union, caused some historians to mistakenly recall that he "ran to the right" of Richard Nixon on national security issues, forgetting his emphasis on negotiations and peaceful solutions.
JFK's establishment opponents—probably not unlike Obama's—did not understand Kennedy's appeal. "Find out his secret," LBJ instructed one of his aides sent to spy on the Kennedy camp, "his strategy, his weaknesses, his comings and goings." Ultimately, Kennedy was both nominated and elected, not by secretly outspending or out-gimmicking his opponents but by outworking and out-thinking them, especially by attracting young volunteers and first-time voters. Most of Kennedy's opponents, like Obama's, were fellow senators—Johnson, Humphrey, and Symington—who initially dismissed him as neither a powerhouse on the Senate floor nor a member of their inner circle. That mattered not to the voters; nor does it today.
Above all, after eight years out of power and two bitter defeats, Democrats in 1960, like today, wanted a winner—and Kennedy, despite his supposed handicaps, was a winner. On civil rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the race to the moon, and other issues, President Kennedy succeeded by demonstrating the same courage, imagination, compassion, judgment, and ability to lead and unite a troubled country that he had shown during his presidential campaign. I believe Obama will do the same.
Theodore Sorensen worked with John F. Kennedy for eleven years, first as his senatorial assistant and then in the White House as his special counsel and adviser.