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Kennedy’s Forgotten Coalition: Working Class Catholics

After decades of Democratic fealty, JFK's "tribal benediction" went Trump.

The Road to Camelot, Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie, Simon & Schuster, 433 pages

In a more uneventful year, the centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birth would attract media-induced introspection. But the dervish news cycle prohibits reflecting upon such benign, yet relevant, political moments. As we breathlessly keep pace with Twitter feeds, chyrons, and emailed newsletters, Kennedy’s 100th birthday appears confined to Time Life retrospectives in grocery checkout lines. Perhaps this fate was unavoidable. A cluttered Kennedy canon, accumulated over years of painstaking probes, stripped the 35th president’s life of the cultural relevance it once represented. 

But this frenzied present deserves some historical clarity. In a poignant commencement address this year, Peggy Noonan lamented the absence of historical perspective among young reporters. “They have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech,” said Noonan. “Their understanding of history, even recent history, is therefore superficial.”

And so Kennedy’s prosperous upbringing, inevitable political rise, and tragic death prove worthy of revisiting during this era of socio-economic and political upheavals. His life, and the period in which he presided, could help us interpret the fractured fault lines of this current cultural moment. Unfortunately, there is no series that fully captures the kingdom, power, and the glory of the Kennedy hierarchy (as Robert Caro did with his multi-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson). But the latest addition to Kennedy’s biographical canon, The Road to Camelot, is an important companion to understanding the presidential campaign process and the coalitions that produce surprising, yet razor thin, electoral outcomes.

Written by Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie, the veteran journalists entertain without injecting political gossip, and analyze without risking historical groupthink or indulgent revisionism. The book demonstrates how Kennedy’s victory in 1960 was the culmination of years of preparation and grassroots recruitment. Under the initial oversight of Kennedy’s father, Joseph, the family’s inner circle commanded what became an unconventional path. Following the Democratic convention in 1956 and through the 1960 election, the Kennedy campaign tirelessly navigated a volatile and evolving electoral map. During this five-year quest for national office, Oliphant and Wilkie write that Kennedy’s non-stop “traveling, speaking, maneuvering, and writing enabled his ‘positives’ (fresh, vigorous, new thinking, Catholic, activist) to keep his ‘negatives’ (inexperienced, unknown risk, bigger government, Catholic) at bay.”

When grieving the present electoral landscape, pundits often blame how reform disempowered the professionals and hacks of both political parties. But Oliphant and Wilkie remind us that rebellion against party norms is nothing new to campaigning. Kennedy disdained how the Democratic machine operated, and after his first Congressional victory in 1946, he aggressively worked outside the party’s suffocating confines. With the help of his brother, Robert, and a pack of loyal comrades, Kennedy maneuvered his rise as a national political figure through grassroots organization (“Kennedy secretaries”), innovative marketing, and policy triangulation. Kennedy’s cozy relationship with the press helped this endeavor. The Kennedy family’s fortune and fame attracted regular coverage, and the frequent magazine profiles and photo spreads made the candidate’s rise almost pre-destined. Regardless, Kennedy was an energetic campaigner, having made over 140 appearances across the country in 1957 alone.

The Road to Camelot shows how the mythology of Kennedy, masterfully crafted at the time, concealed the sins that would imperil any modern campaign. The authors are clearly fond of their subject, but they present Kennedy’s odyssey without clouding the reality of dirty tricks, reckless behavior, and extramarital affairs. Kennedy successfully hid these darker compartments thanks to an adoring press. This turned out much to Vice President Richard Nixon’s misfortune. Unlike his opponent, Nixon encountered a series of unlucky and widely reported developments throughout 1960. During a critical campaign stretch, an infected knee confined Nixon to bed rest. At one point, even his own boss, President Dwight Eisenhower, humiliated him at a White House press conference. When asked if he could give an example of any major idea Nixon contributed to his presidency, Eisenhower responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”

The overall campaign’s mythology wounded Nixon. Countless profiles recount Nixon’s cadaver-like appearance at the first presidential debate, but the initial reaction to both candidates’ performances was more measured. As New York Times columnist James Reston concluded that September, the debate “did not make or break either candidate.”

Nixon could never compete with Kennedy’s telegenic persona, a gift less endowed than painfully crafted through constant practice and diaphragm exercises. Kennedy’s advertising team also embraced the embryonic stages of the modern Information Age. Their tactics seem primitive and innocent compared to the algorithms, data mining, and psychological profiles culled by today’s campaigns. But the campy jingles, pamphlets, and television commercials were innovative measures that gave high hopes for Kennedy’s electoral success. After all, this was the pre-smartphone age, a time when the critic Dwight Macdonald could soberly make the following declaration: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking.”

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The Road to Camelot also reminds us that Kennedy understood how Catholicism could derail his electoral chances. But Kennedy refused to downplay this factor, embracing his Catholic identity throughout the campaign trail. A top advisor, Walt Rostow, recalled Kennedy’s decision to barnstorm the West Virginia primary. Campaign officials feared a punishing defeat, but Kennedy understood that confronting a state with historically anti-Catholic pockets was necessary. “I have no right to go before the Democratic convention and claim to be a candidate if I can only win primaries in states with 25 percent or more Catholics,” Kennedy said. “I must go in there. And I am going in.”

The authors devote generous coverage to Kennedy’s Catholicism, showing how he gained national popularity without religion disqualifying his candidacy. Beginning in 1956, Kennedy delegated his long-time aide, Ted Sorensen, to research the Catholic vote. Sorensen’s findings resulted in the “Bailey Report.” Misleadingly attributed to John Bailey, a party boss from Connecticut, Sorensen’s report explored the viability of a Catholic presidency. Before the report’s prescient findings, political operatives had concluded that Al Smith’s 1928 defeat spelled the end of placing a Catholic on a presidential ticket. But Sorensen concluded that there was “such a thing as a ‘Catholic’ vote, whereby a high proportion of Catholics of all ages, residences, occupations and economic status vote for a well-known Catholic candidate or a ticket with special Catholic appeal.”

The book’s exploration of ethno-religious politics is an especially powerful subject to revisit following the 2016 campaign. The Democratic platform is now beholden to identity politics. Their polarizing coalition building ignores the ethnic Catholics who built the party in Northern and Midwestern cities during the twentieth century. Amazingly, it was only a half century ago that pastors, columnists, and politicians could openly incite anti-Catholic bigotry. When the Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale railed against Kennedy’s Catholicism and questioned his national allegiance, the candidate responded by invoking the death of his brother Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. in service during World War II.

Oliphant and Wilkie reveal that Kennedy’s 1960 victory was no mandate. Outside of his home state of Massachusetts, more Americans voted for Nixon than Kennedy. His triumph was made possible by the Catholic turnout in states like New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois. For Catholics in urban and semi-rural regions, Kennedy’s election was a tribal benediction. The candidate himself was less important than what his candidacy signified. In row homes, duplexes, and shanties, Kennedy quickly earned his real estate on living room walls alongside boxers, union bosses, and the Sacred Heart.

Should we be surprised that the descendants of this coalition voted for Donald Trump? Exit polling indicated that Trump carried the Catholic vote, with Pew reporting a 7-point winning margin. Barack Obama previously won the Catholic vote in 2008 and 2012. While cultural issues certainly played a role in this shift, a closer inspection indicates where Catholic voters switched sides.

The growing literature on the plight of Appalachia deflects attention from the struggles of dwindling ethnic Catholic communities. For so many ethnic hamlets in Michigan or Pennsylvania, a middle-class existence either evaporated or never arrived. Their cash strapped local governments fail to provide adequate services. Rapid demographic change overwhelms their school districts and neighborhoods. Manufacturers announce layoffs and retail malls close. 

The collective effect erodes any semblance of social cohesion. In these communities, individuals live in the same neighborhoods where their immigrant Catholic families arrived a century before. But the jobs are gone and their parish is consolidated or closed. These Democratic strongholds supported the labor movement, disproportionately served in the First and Second World Wars, and rallied around Kennedy in the hope of cultural vindication. This coalition remembers when Kennedy famously asked what Americans could do for their country. After reading this masterful study, one cannot help but ask what the current Democratic party has done for working-class Catholics. 

Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania.



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