The election of the Democratic presidential candidate would be a first in U.S. history. His victory would break down a biographical bar that previously had excluded all presidential candidates of that particular background. He faced a candidate who had far more depth in national security issues and foreign policy experience. Undertones of bigotry were raised in the campaign. The Democratic candidate, however, had the charisma and glamour of a Hollywood movie star, along with an eloquence that made audiences swoon. The candidate had even written a best-selling book. The election promised to be close.
Sound familiar? Actually, I was describing the 1960 presidential campaign that pitted Catholic Sen. John Kennedy, the Democrat, against Republican Vice President Richard Nixon. It was razor close. Kennedy won the electoral votes. Few realize that Nixon carried the popular vote, as Al Gore did in 2000, because the votes in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi were added to Kennedy’s totals.
But Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is no black JFK. The country knew who Kennedy was. He had served in Congress and the U.S. Senate since 1947. His father had been President Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain at the start of World War II. If Obama loses, it will be attributed to race. Yet the African-American Gen. Colin Powell, in Gallup Polls back in 1999 and 2000, was beating all other possible candidates, including Gore in 1999, by percentages of more than 10 percent to 15 percent.
Aside from some hard-shelled Protestants, there was far more of a comfort level with Kennedy in 1960 than with Obama this year. Kennedy scored heavily with the working class, winning more of their ballots than had voted for Republican Gen. Dwight Eisenhower against Democratic Gov. Adlai Stevenson in the previous two presidential elections.
Recently, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania said Obama is sounding too much like the elitist Choate and Princeton educated Stevenson. He is appealing to the wine sippers, but not the beer drinkers. Rendell worried that Obama is a black Adlai Stevenson, the egghead who was the idol of intellectual salons in the 1950s.
To win, Obama has to win over the “Joe Six-Pack” voter who, for the moment, has big questions about him.
For one thing, Joe is not happy about his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who officiated at Obama’s marriage and baptized his children. This is the preacher who said “not bless America, but damn America.”
He also is uncomfortable with the fact that convicted bomber and terrorist Bill Ayers held the first organizational planning dinner for Obama’s state senatorial campaign.
He is troubled by the fact that the jailed racketeer Tony Rezko gave him a sweetheart deal on buying his house.
In 1960, Jack Kennedy was not burdened by an exotic name and background.
If Obama had a distinguished record of achievement, he might have dispelled the uneasiness he triggers in many voters. During the two years he has been in the U.S. Senate, he has been running for president. Before that, as Illinois state senator, his record was notable for the unprecedented number of “present not-voting” answers to roll calls.
When former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Dukakis was asked what experience Obama brings to the table, he halted, hesitated, and said he was a “great state senator.” True, Obama proudly points to his years as a community organizer, which others would describe his work as being a community activist. When Rendell compared Obama with his fellow Illinois politician, Adlai Stevenson, that was not quite true. Although Obama has the Stevenson eloquence, he does not have executive experience as governor.
Some may see, at least superficially, a similar situation in 1952. Then the Democratic candidate, an Illinois politician, was up against a military academy-educated war hero. But the real similarity is the political climate. Harry Truman, the incumbent president, had approval ratings lower than President George W. Bush does now. Truman had entered an unpopular war in Korea, as Bush did in Iraq.
This should be a slam-dunk year for Democrats, as it was for Republicans in 1952, except for one thing: Too many of those planning to vote for Democrats to Congress are hesitant about pushing the lever for Obama.
Obama is a question mark. Those voters agree with Sen. Hillary Clinton: “He doesn’t bring a lifetime of experience the way John McCain and I do.”
Obama looks like a movie star and has a glamorous wife, but he is no more a black JFK than the stylish Michelle is another Jackie.
For one thing, Jack had a quick wit and sense of humor. He could laugh at himself. Obama whined that the “big ears” political cartoonists put on him are “personally hurtful.”
Kennedy, who poked fun at himself, would never allow the grandiose and spectacular setting of Greek temples assembled by his Hollywood friends for his acceptance speech. Fascist dictators of the 1930s would have been envious of the colossal backdrop settings for the acceptance speech in Denver.
Obama has made the theme of his election that a McCain is another Bush. It won’t wash. McCain, who ran against Bush in 2000, has voted more than any other Republican against President Bush on such issues as taxes, on “earmarking” and on deficit spending. Yes, McCain supported Bush on Iraq, but he called for a surge a year before Bush deployed it and the surge is bringing victory to the Iraq war and allowing troops to begin a staged withdrawal.
Obama is making this campaign a referendum against Bush, but Bush is not on the ballot. Instead it has become a referendum on Obama. That is why Obama is at best a 50-50 shot to win.
James C. Humes, a former presidential speechwriter, is the former professor of language and leadership at Colorado State University/Pueblo. He is now Schuck Fellow and Visiting Historian at the University of Colorado/Colorado Springs.
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