Obama Recalls Memories Of JFK

President-elect John F. Kennedy in Miami, Nov. 14, 1960, and then-Sen. Barack Obama, Oct. 16, 2006. AP

This column was written by Ted Sorensen, who served as special counsel and adviser to President John F. Kennedy.

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.

  • David Miller