A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Obama & Kennedy

President-elect Barack Obama's charisma, intelligence, and youth often caused commentators to compare him to John F. Kennedy. The endorsement of Obama by Caroline Kennedy and Sen. Edward Kennedy cemented the comparison, as did the obvious parallel between what Kennedy's election represented for American Catholics and what Obama's means to African Americans. I recently had occasion to look back at what Commonweal's editors had to say after certain crucial presidential elections, and I was once again struck by the strong similarities between the two men, and especially the treacherous political landscapes each had to navigate in being elected. Excerpted below are a few graphs from Commonweal's November 18, 1960, editorial:

We regard the decision which has been made by the American people not only as a critical comment on the past, not merely as a desire for a change, but as a sign of their trust in the future--and in this man whose full measure this country and the world have yet to take....Senator Kennedy first had to overcome strong and articulate opposition within his own party. Some of the sharpest thrusts at the Senator were delivered by other Democrats before his nomination. Yet after the nomination he enlisted those people in his vigorous campaign. Although he backed the most liberal Democratic platform yet produced, he gained support in the South. Although many were distressed at his choice for Vice President, he extended his strength in Northern liberal areas. And he convinced those committed people who initially felt they would rather lose with Stevenson than win with anyone else that his battle was worth fighting....We have no desire to turn a man into a legend before his time. Nevertheless, we think that Senator Kennedy promises to be the kind of leader who can accomplish many of these things. Not only has he the qualities enumerated by Mr. [Walter] Lippmann, but he has that intangible quality of charisma. Even while the political commentators were decrying his intellectual, unemotional approach people responded to him with a kind of excitement and enthusiasm that has not been visited upon this country since the days of Roosevelt. In directing his country through the times ahead, this quality can be a factor of incalculable importance.

About the Author

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

"In directing his country through the times ahead, this quality can be a factor of incalculable importance." This is true. That is why I will continue to pray for his conversion of Heart in regards to the Sanctity of Life and the Sanctity of Marriage and the Family. With God, all things are possible.

Uncanny. And that's not even counting the Michelle O./Jackie O. comparison!

Excellent post and echoes some of the earlier comments in other posts. Interesting - here is how Francis Cardinal George outlined the comparison in his opening USCCB address: "We can also be truly grateful that our countrys social conscience has advanced to the point that Barack Obama was not asked to renounce his racial heritage in order to be president, as, effectively, John Kennedy was asked to promise that his Catholic faith would not influence his perspective and decisions as president a generation ago. Echoes of that debate remain in the words of those who reject universal moral propositions that have been espoused by the human race throughout history, with the excuse that they are part of Catholic moral teaching. Interesting historical interpretation - I thought JFK's Houston speech to the ministers clarified that he did not take orders from Rome in terms of US policy. Appears that George is reading into this??

I don't think George's interpretation of Kennedy's Houston speech is exhaustive, but the comparison does seem relatively apt. Even in this campaign season, there were dark murmurs here and there that a black president would be disproportionately concerned about the interests of "his people" (whatever that might mean). But that kind of thinking remained on the fringes; Obama never had to give an address wherein he stated outright that he would not allow his blackness to dictate his priorities as president. It is saying a mouthful, though, to wrap up race and religion and separation-of-Church-and-state in a few sentences!

In 1960, abortion was not legal and no one was trying to legally redefine Marriage and the Family. As Catholics, our Freedom of Religion was not threatened.

Nancy,Your Freedom of Religion is not threatened now, either.

If that is true, David, then those of us who believe that "gay" marriage is not a human rights issue have nothing to fear.Do you believe that Marriage is a Sacrament David?

The only similarities I see between Obama and JFK are superficial. I don't see any similarities at all between Michelle and Jackie. Am I missing something?

Whether we admit it or not we were infinitely happy that a Catholic got elected president (except for Cardinal Spellman who felt threatened). As the O.J murder verdict had really little to do with O.J. that election had little to do with Kennedy the person. Fifty years later it is clear that Kennedy was and is greatly overrated. He was a supreme politician who had few scruples. He truly demeaned women in his personal life despite his public persona. We will leave the judgment to God but women were more sexual conquests than anything else for him. His election was important for breaking a barrier and his speech in Houston was historical. But we should take it easy on the eulogizing. It is truly great and a milestone that a black man was elected president. But we have to assess him on his merits not his mythology.

Barbara: Michelle O. is young, attractive and extremely fashionable, at least as first ladies go. That doesn't remind you of Mrs. Kennedy?Bill: Who's eulogizing? The post (and the comparison) is about how people saw Kennedy at the time of his election.

Without taking anything away from Jackie Kennedy, I think such a the comparison focuses on superficial resemblances and diminishes Michelle Obama's accomplishments (probably Jackie's as well).

Nancy,How is gay marriage a threat to heterosexual marriage? It seems to me that the jury is still out on gay parents. It is so new we just don't know how well the children of such pairs will typically turn out. But how are gay coiples a threat to heterosexual couple's? What aspect or aspects of a herero couple's relationship can be destroyed or even injured by a gay couple?

Newsweek is carrying a lengthy making-of-the-president piece that roots the origins of Obama's campaign in the Kennedy family:"In November 2006, [Washington lawyer Gregory] Craig sat next to George Stevens, an old friend of the Robert Kennedy clan, at another Obama speech. Stevens leaned over to Craig and said, "What do you think of this guy for president? I haven't heard anybody like this since Bobby Kennedy." Craig instantly replied, "Sign me up." Stevens and Craig approached Obama coming out of the speech and asked, "What are you doing in 2008?" Obama gave them a big grin and said, "Oh, man, it wasn't that good." But before long Craig and Stevens were raising money for Obama's political-action committee, the Hope Fund. Obama was amused by the devotion of the two old Kennedy hands. After a while, every time he saw the two men he would say, "Here come the Kool-Aid boys."Later:"Greg Craig was not the only old Kennedy hand to fall in love. At Coretta Scott King's funeral in early 2006, Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, leaned over to him and whispered, "The torch is being passed to you." "A chill went up my spine," Obama told an aide. The funeral, he said, was "pretty intimidating." " The full article is at the Kennedy anointing is just part of the rite-of-passage for a successful Democratic presidential nominee - how many times was that 1963 photo shown of Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK in the Rose Garden shown when Clinton was the anointed one? But I do think there is something RFK-like about BHO.

Nancy,I believe that marriage is just as much a sacrament in Massachusetts and Connecticut as it is in the other 48 states. I believe marriage is just as much a sacrament in the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Norway, South Africa, and Spain as it is in all the other countries in the world. Do you think any government on earth can pass any law that will stop marriage from being a sacrament?

I admire gay couples but am not all that keen on applying the title of "marriage" -- Kennedy amazed Ike by the depths of his political knowledge, and in his speeches seems to speak from that depth in a way that I do not see in Obama. Obama seems to have rather simplistic foreign policy ideas and to state all his ideas transparently, not suggesting a deep hinterground of subtle reflection. I hope I am wrong about that."Fifty years later it is clear that Kennedy was and is greatly overrated. He was a supreme politician who had few scruples."Maybe, but "supreme politician" is perhaps an epithet that Obama has not yet merited." He truly demeaned women in his personal life despite his public persona."Well, remember when people were wishing that Bush would find a Monica? Obama is puritanically transparent -- not necessarily the best qualification for politicians." We will leave the judgment to God but women were more sexual conquests than anything else for him."Quite so, and for many macho men, especially in those pre-feminist days. It seems to me silly to make a big deal about that when dealing with political leaders.

Joseph, I have a hunch that the simplistic views you have espied are as much the result of the dumbing down of national discourse as they are of any lack of complexity in Obama. McCain had even more simplistic ideas, and there too, I doubt if he would have been quite as simplistic as he conveyed he would be. The unanswerable question is whether Kennedy, for all his political knowledge, would have run aground on Vietnam as Johnson did. It's virtually certain that would not have been as successful in enacting civil rights legislation. One reason I don't like Kennedy Obama comparisons is that I really don't want to relive the 60s.

And Nancy, further to David's comment:whose is to say that the marriage of two gays isn't a sacrament?Remember it is God who blesses the marriage when two spirits join in matrimony. What the institutional Church thinks is happening smacks of misplaced infallibility,

"Whose is to say that the marriage of two gays isn't a sacrament?"John Borst, that would be the same God of our Founding Fathers, Nature's God, not god, but the Creator, God, as referred to from the beginning of this Great Nation in the Declaration of Independence.

Barbara - I certainly agree that there's more to both ladies than their sense of style. But I don't think their individual merits have much to do with their identities as first ladies, which role seems to me to be entirely superficial. I don't think the point here is to compare Obama and Kennedy so much as to compare what was said about both at the moment of their election. Let's hope we're not about to repeat history.

First, I'm going to prescind from the internal arguing (incessant) here about gay marriage and the threat it presents if any.I think the issue is whether there'll be a "new frontier" politically, not Obama and JFK's personal lives.Catholics who voted for Obama voted for amjor chnage, more in keping with the values of many parts, though not all, of the gospel.If ll you care about is one or two neuralgic issues that divide the Faithful, you may repeat yourself her eas often as possible, but the thread strikes me as the politik of the new regime.

I agree with Bob re the incessant arguing about gay marriage but I couldn't resist my dig at Nancy; sorry folks!And I can't resist telling Nancy, He.She is not the God of America. He.She is the God of all humankind and what other intelligent species there exists in the universe whose reproductive systems and forms of sacramentality we can only imagine.

the Creator, God, as referred to from the beginning of this Great Nation in the Declaration of Independence.Nancy,Isn't that the document that says all men are created equal?

I think you are underestimating Jackie Kennedy. She was seriously interested in art, culture, history and France, and she promoted greater respect for each of these while in the White House. She almost singlehandedly saved the Ramses II statues in Egypt -- at least, she initiated the campaign and gave so much effort to it that Egypt gave her some kind of national honorarium (that's also why the Met in New York has some of its great Egyptian works -- as a gift for American efforts to preserve Egyptian heritage).Only time will tell for Michelle Obama's role.

I don't mean to dismiss Jackie K. or any of her accomplishments. It's the "first lady" mantle in general that rankles me, especially now, when so much of this election cycle was spent talking about how we almost had a lady presidential candidate, and haven't we come a long way, and wouldn't it be funny to have a "first dude," ho ho. I'm not ready to go back to patronizing a woman with her own professional credentials, and I sort of hope Michelle O. doesn't choose a pet cause. But God bless the women who've done something positive with their ceremonial power.

Right, but why exacerbate the First Lady's strait jacket by focusing on her clothes?

"who's to say that the marriage of two gays isnt a sacrament?"There is only one authority on this subject: the Church. "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven".As far as I know the idea of giving gay unions sacramental status is very much not on the agenda of the mainstream Christian churches.

Joseph,In Canada, I'd say both the Anglican and United Church of Canada are very much mainstream Christian Churches and they are both very much in the forefront of blessing same-sex marriages.And anyway, how can we mere mortals know that just because we refuse to bind something on earth, that God doesn't see it in a different light.Are you also implying that if some non-mainstream Christian churches such as say the Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborg) [I really have no idea what their position is but they are out of the mainstream] did bless such marriages and the mainstream did not that God would in fact bless new Church gay marriages. For that matter would he bless mainstream Christian ones in Canada or the Netherlands or where ever and not State ones before say a Unitarian minister or a justice of the peace in the USA?There are some pretty slippery implications to your statement, don't you think?

My partner Joe and I have been together for 42 years. We haven't thought about getting married. I think some day marriages between gay partners will be very common. I live in San Francisco. Many of the Catholics I know favor same sex marriages. I favor them.

Michael, very interesting. My wife and I have been married and are still together for 43 years so I can understand the kind of commitment to one another you and your partner must have.In Canada we have a legal partnership often called "common-law marriage". It simply gives partners now both heterosexual and homosexual who have been living together for two or three years or longer (depends on Provincial and or Federal law ie. pensions are involved.) a division of assets similar to a "married" couple.I was startled to read recently that California does not have such a category. There may be a division of assets but it is very unequal and not the same as for legally married couples. As you might expect for heterosexual couples that means the women is left with little and the guy walks away with most of the bounty.In returning to our thread it is difficult to conceive that a merciful God doesn't shine down upon your relationship in the same fashion as I hope he does mine.

John,There are some laws for domestic partners. These mainly deal with health benefits. These laws are relatively new. When William Levada was Archbishop of San Francisco, the Catholic Church was going to lose any funding from the City of San Francisco if it did not offer benefits to domestic partners of employees. At the time Levada discovered that the Franciscans friars had been offering benefits to domestic partners of employees for a very long time. The Franciscans have many employees in San Francisco because they operate a huge nonprofit named San Anthony's Foundation. The Franciscans offered benefits to anybody who lived with the employee. They didn't care if it was a domestic partner, mother, friend or enemy. It was a very Christian solution. The Archdiocese now does the same thing. We need more laws locally and nationally to financially protect the surviving partner of a same sex partnership if one of them dies. I am sure the Lord shines down on your relationship as much as he has on mine.

John, most (not all) states used to have common law marriage statutes, but phased them out between the mid-60s and the early 80s. I think their reason for doing so is quite instructive regarding the current debate over marriage. Most states discontinued common law marriage when it became apparent that cohabiting was intended by the parties to be an alternative to marriage, and the state was loath to "trap" them into a legal arrangement against their will. Obviously, in some cases one of the parties might have wanted the marriage and the other not, but the states came down on the side of protecting the intentionally expressed interests of the involved parties that they not be married. In addition, because child support laws changed dramatically during the same period to protect the interests of children of unmarried parents, assigning married status to cohabiting parents was not seen as necessary to protect the interests of the children. I know all this because I had a friend who ended up having to get divorced even though she never affirmatively married her spouse. She and he lived together something like two days too long right before the status of common law marriage was abolished in my home state. She was not happy.

So, to end the thought: I think the example is instructive because it shows that states have looked at the institution of marriage quite pragmatically in the past, as a legal arrangement intended to carry out the intentions of people who wish to have the legal status of being married, and changed it as necessary to ensure that it served that purpose.

I must report that our poor editor is bewildered by the trajectory of this thread--just his second post. How did we end up arguing about gay marriage?

Grant, I suspect it had its genesis in Nancy's first comment"the Sanctity of Marriage and the Family" & flowed from there.

"For that matter would he bless mainstream Christian ones in Canada or the Netherlands or wherever and not State ones before say a Unitarian minister or a justice of the peace in the USA?"I have no access to the mind of God, so I rely on the Church to determine what is a sacrament and what not. I think that loving gay unions are blessed, but whether they should be given sacramental status in the strict sense I do not know. A complicating factor is that not many Christian churches, as far as I understand, regard marriage as a sacrament in any case.

Actually, my first comment is what it is. My second comment was in response to the comment by Bill DeHaas on November 10, at 3:35. Today, if John F. Kennedy was running for President on the Democratic ticket, he would be forced to renounce his Catholic Faith regarding the Church's teaching on the Sanctity of Life and the Sanctity of Marriage and the Family.John Borst, the capital G God is the God of all mankind.

My understanding is that Martin Luther objected to giving marriage sacramental status, and that no protestant denomination, except anglicanism and perhaps a few others, currently considers marriage to be "sacramental."

Nancy,RE: the capital G God: I am glad we can agree on that. But what inspired you to post that comment?It is also. however, what makes definitive claims by a segment of mankind so questionable to all of mankind.Much of mankind believes that abortion 1 second after conception is a criminal act, the killing of a human person. Much of mankind doesn't accept that premise. Currently, the latter group, in most countries have the upper hand in a legal sense and whether the first group likes it or not the spread of such laws is increasing not decreasing.What the pro-life argument has done is actually worked in reverse; it has encouraged pro-choice advocates to work with national legislators to get pro-abortion laws on their books.Would it have happened anyway? I do not know. Suffice it to say, pro-life's political campaign and by extension the Catholic Churches campaign has been spectacularly unsuccessful even in the United States.In Canada we just went through an election prior to yours. We have no law at all on abortion. It wasn't even on the radar (much to the frustration of some). Canada is no less religious than the United States. We just know our politicians won't touch it with a ten foot pole. For some reason American's haven't seemed to figure that one out yet.That is why pro-life and the Bishop's have to re-evaluate their political strategy and move to policies which with out saying so will have the effect of lowering the need for abortion. Maintaining their current rhetoric is clearly counter productive. And that is why this week's USCCB's statement to Obama is so counter-productive. It is the same old, same old story.

"Re: the capital G God. But what inspired you to post that comment?"John, I was referring to the same God mentioned in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, the Creator of the the Laws of Nature, Nature's God, from whom the unalienable Right to Life for every Person comes from.From the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:god- 1.capitalized: the supreme or ultimate reality as a: the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.It is the Mission of the Church to speak the Truth. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:"Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being." (-CCC,no.2258; citing The Gift of Life, Donum Vitae,no.5)This statement from the Catechism of the Catholic Church is consistent with the statement from the Declaration of Independence : "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among men..."The first Right listed is the Right to Life because without the Right to Life, there can be no other Rights. These Rights are unalienable Rights that can not be transferred to the State.From the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "From its conception, the child has the Right to Life." This statement is consistent with the definition of the beginning of the Life of a Child.From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: conceive: 1a: to become pregnant with, conceive a child b: to cause to begin.

Nancy,My first response is to say, so! So that is very interesting. I had never seen both in juxtaposition like that and it is indeed interesting. So lets imagine you show that to all of the members of Congress and the majority just say SO!I'm not prepared to act on the decision of the Supreme Court in Roe. So, what do you do at that point.And I believe that is the point at which you are in the USA and have been, since the Roe vs Wade decision. It is no different than the decision here by the Supreme Court which said that the law on the books at the time was unconstitutional. We were left with no law with the result that abortion is legal at any time. A situation no different than you have. So politicians who want to find ways of bringing in laws having nothing to do directly with abortion but by their nature within the social context of a society have proven to reduce the number of abortion are only vilified and slandered by fanatical pro-lifers, including bishops.Isn't that self defeating? If you can't do A, don't you fall back to B. or do you just keep pounding away at a because beating your head against a brick wall feels good. It is soothing. And you do think you are doing something. But when do you stop and say maybe there is another way.

John, from, "The Supreme Court, Roe V. Wade and Abortion Law", by Francis J. Beckwith."Constitutionally, the unborn is a person protected under the Fourteenth Amendment...In order to justify abortion, the court has to show that the unborn is not a person under the Fourteenth Amendment."Someone needs to bring a case before the Supreme Court challenging the Court to prove that a Child in their Mother's Womb is not a person.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment