Channeling JFK: Why Barack Obama Needs to Make as Much as Possible Out of Being Black, Without Overdoing It

Friday, March 14, 2008

“The subliminal message is simple: “Vote for Obama as a re-affirmation of your tolerance.”  How can we prove that race doesn’t matter?  What better way than by electing a African American President, that is, a President who happens also to be Black.”

Hard to believe that I can remember, as someone who first became politically aware in the 60s, when people wondered if America could elect a Catholic President, that is, “a President who happens also to be Catholic.”  I wasn’t old enough to vote when Jack Kennedy ran for office, but I remember being surprised that anyone would even ask what religion a candidate happened to be.  But it was in the news, and I just assumed that it must have been important to a lot of people – although, in retrospect, far fewer than the media exposure it received led us to believe.  It was an issue Kennedy addressed head on, in much the same way Senator Obama has discussed the race issue in this year’s election.

On September 12, 1960, Jack Kennedy made a speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that Barack Obama could have written.  I won’t quote from it extensively, but leave it to you to read the entire text, if you like, at the website I’ll give you at the end of this column.  (The quote in the first paragraph is from the same speech.)

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured – perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this.  So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again – not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me – but what kind of America I believe in.

One view of the speech that followed is that he was using his considerable skills as an orator to make a stirring point about the idea of America, about the country we hope to be, but never quite realize.  In fact, what I believed he was doing then, and what Barack Obama is doing now with respect to his own ethnicity, was embarrassing non-Catholics into voting for him, while prodding Catholics to make sure that they did.  Far from attempting to put aside the issue of his religious affiliation, he was doing his best to make the most of it.  It’s a ploy that didn’t work for Governor Romney for a number of reasons, but it’s working exceptionally well for Senator Obama, so far.

Without question, Senator Obama is very intelligent, a deliberate person who thinks carefully about the major life decisions he makes.  He had to have known that he was running for President early in his political career, but it was a reasonable gamble.  If he failed, he’d benefit from the exposure and run again 4 or 8 years from now.  If lightening struck, and it did, he might actually be able to compete against the likes of the Clinton machine.  She and others running at the time would be experienced, but easily characterized as “old school.”  He would take advantage of his inexperience by leaving his opposition few accomplishments they could challenge.  He would be the idealist, somehow unencumbered by the traditional Washington and international relationships in how he would manage our government, and direct its domestic and foreign policies.  It’s a ludicrous premise, that knowing nothing about something makes you better able to develop or manage it, but the strategy has turned out to be exceptionally effective – which says more about us and how we view the role of our Presidents, than it does about him.

Senator Clinton is a woman.  That’s certainly as ground breaking as an African American running for President, but then she has baggage, a lifetime of history in politics that would turn off voters desperate for something new.  (I like to think of them as the “I don’t know what it is, but I want one” vote.)

Being as bright as he is, Senator Obama couldn’t have thought that no one would notice or care that he was Black.  In fact, he’s acknowledged that, regrettably, race is still a factor for some voters, and that there are those who would prefer to vote for someone of their own ethnicity – as there are Black Americans voting for him for precisely the same reason.  That’s certainly not a good thing, but it could make the difference in a tight contest for the nomination.  Once again, the Senator wisely chose to turn a potential problem to his advantage.

I don’t pretend to have any idea what motivates the Senator, but what I can do is offer a reasonable explanation for his behavior.  Rather than pushing aside the issue of racism, he’s help keep it in the news.  He’s used it, the way Jack Kennedy used the issue of his Catholicism, to energize the African American vote, while at the same time, in a subtle, but nonetheless effective way, daring more educated and young white voters to support his candidacy in spite of his race – which shouldn’t make any difference to them in the first place, and probably never did.  The subliminal message is simple: “Vote for Obama as a re-affirmation of your tolerance.”  How can we prove that race doesn’t matter?  What better way than by electing a African American President, that is, a President who happens also to be Black.

Senator Clinton would win the support of white women in impressive, but not overwhelming numbers, while Senator Obama would motivate Black voters to turn out in record numbers in near universal support of his candidacy.  Add the Black vote to those of young and educated white Americans, and he might just make it.

Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, there are signs that the experience issue is catching up to him, and that the power of his rhetoric is waning in the land of the short attention span.  He knows he’s got to close before the first vote at the Democratic convention.  If that first delegate vote doesn’t confirm his nomination, he’s in real trouble.  Could he have come all this way on a wing and speech only to finish in second place?

Far from running as an a-racial candidate, solely on the strength of his experience, policies and vision for America, he’s raised the issue race every chance he gets.  He’s allowed no one else to so much as mention the subject, however academically, without extending the coverage of those remarks with his own and those of his supporters, knowing full well that the media has time on its hands with an insatiable appetite for “Breaking News.”  Is he telling us that it doesn’t make any difference, or challenging us to vote for him because it shouldn’t, while reminding Black Americans what’s at stake?  He and his supporters can be critical of Geraldine Ferraro’s comments all they want.  In an election this close, they need to keep the race issue on the table, and I suspect they know it, because they’re too savvy not to.

Kennedy’s speech:

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2 responses to “Channeling JFK: Why Barack Obama Needs to Make as Much as Possible Out of Being Black, Without Overdoing It

  1. I believe you have a valid point, that you cannot get this far in poilitics without knowing how the machine works.
    Just a UK perspective.
    Hope you don’t mind the link, as we are on the same subject.

  2. Robert Rickover

    Obama-Clinton, Clinton-Obama – either dream team is McCain’s worst nightmare. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can easily make that nightmare a reality for him now. Here’s how:

    Both publicly pledge that if are nominated for President, the other candidate will be their first choice for the Vice Presidential spot.

    This immediately puts a stop to attacks on the other, or calling their ability into question. They can still debate the issues and clarify their differences, but the main focus of their anger and outrage can now be directed at the Bush-McCain policies of the past 8 years.

    The enthusiastic support of the other is exactly what each candidate will need in the fall to win. Each appeals to the voters the other has the hardest time attracting. If they combine their strengths – “hope” and “work” – they both will almost certainly be in a position to lead America out of the mess we are in.

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