American presidential elections are fascinating as much for their sociological import as their concrete political issues. So it was intriguing to watch the Kennedys, America's first explicitly ethnic dynasty, pass the torch to the first African-American presidential candidate. And that does inspire some meanderings down memory lane.
Everyone raised in the postwar Catholic neighborhoods remembers the tremendous impact of the John F. Kennedy's race in 1960. Of course, JFK was not the first Catholic candidate. That honor belongs to Al Smith, who was buried by Herbert Hoover in the 1928 landslide in which a substantial part of the electorate vented their anti-Catholic prejudices. (Mr. Smith later joked that he sent the pope a brief post-election telegram: "Unpack!"). Catholics went on to become a cornerstone of Roosevelt's New Deal coalition, with its strong ties to Irish-dominated urban political machines.
But by the 1950's, the winds of change were blowing. President Eisenhower won over large numbers of Catholic voters with his moderate brand of Republicanism. Postwar affluence was loosening the bonds that tied Catholic voters to traditional ethnic neighborhoods, and many moved out to the incredibly affordable suburbs of that era. Returning veterans did not always choose to settle in the states of their birth, either, and planted roots in shiny new communities from Florida to California. Catholics, along with Jews, began attending college in great numbers and then stormed the citadels of elite universities, hitherto a bastion of the Protestant elites, winning a recognized place for themselves there.
JFK was perfectly positioned to connect with these newly affluent, educated voters. Handsome, polished, urbane and above all rich, this charming third generation Irishman was the epitome of the American dream.
Still, there were doubts. There were lingering reservations about JFK's Catholic religion (remember that prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Church had long rejected the American concept of freedom of religion, in theory anyway). And then there was the concern articulated by former president Harry S. Truman- "it's not the pope I'm worried about, but the pop!" And many other people worried about Joseph P. Kennedy Sr- rich as Croesus, with known isolationist tendencies, suspected anti-Semitic sentiments, whose tentacles seemed to extend into every precinct poised to release tons of ready cash.
Looking back at the election in retrospect, it seems almost quaintly consensus-driven. The two protagonists, Kennedy and Nixon, were incredibly close in policy matters compared to today's ideologically divisive politics. Both were resolute Cold Warriors. A heavily regulated system of capitalism was a given for both men. Their differences were largely stylistic- Kennedy campaigning on Change (a perennial!) and "Vigah", Nixon touting his "experience" (at 47!-one year older than Barack Obama!). Of course, the consensus would unravel as the tumultuous 1960's proceeded. Kennedy's election put an end to the "Catholic question" in American politics, probably forever. It was a great milestone in the full integration of Catholics in American life. But JFK's legacy in office, and the issues left unresolved by his tragic death, seem to exert a strange presence down to the present day.