Want a ray of hope in this bleak political landscape?
Back in the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy went from being reviled, because of his religion, to being the president of the United States with approval ratings in the stratosphere.
Figuratively, it happened in a twinkling of the eye.
Kennedy, who was gunned down 57 years ago today in Dallas, Texas, remains a vivid presence in the national imagination.
As the late historian, Alan Brinkley, wrote for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, a great many Americans view the 35th president through rose-colored glasses, believing that JFK, had he lived, would have “transformed the nation and the world.”
“He reminds many Americans of an age when it was possible to believe that politics could speak to society’s moral yearnings and be harnessed to its highest aspirations.
“More than anything, perhaps, Kennedy reminds us of a time when the nation’s capacities looked limitless, when its future seemed unbounded, when Americans believed that they could solve hard problems and accomplish bold deeds.”
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to forget the vilification of Kennedy prior to his presidency. JFK was a Catholic. A Catholic had never held the highest office in the land. Protestant America was deeply distrustful of the Church. As a consequence, candidate Kennedy was called to account because, it was alleged, he would take orders from the pope, as part of a vast Catholic conspiracy to undermine American society and democracy.
Pretty silly, but true. Here’s a small sampling of the campaign of misinformation directed against Kennedy:
In May 1960, a newsletter put out by the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church of Lexington, Ky., argued that “religious freedom ... is foreign to the Roman Catholic Church ... no other religion or church has a right to it.”
This presumed that should Kennedy become president, he would stamp out religious freedom in the United States.
The Knights of Christ, a southern California outfit, claimed that the Catholic Church “condemns every American principle, such as the equality of man, freedom of religion, freedom of the press [and] separation of church and state.”
The inference voters were suppose to draw from this was that Kennedy, once in office, would actively undermine, if not destroy, every constitutional guarantee of individual liberty.
The most scurrilous attack on Kennedy came in the form of a fabricated Knights of Columbus oath that purported to instruct organization members to “make and wage relentless war” against Protestants, by “hanging, burning, wasting, boiling, strangling and burying alive those infamous heretics.”
Over the top, for sure. But it was the kind of thing that was being bandied about in Protestant circles in the months before Kennedy won a narrow 49.7 to 49.5 percentage point victory over then-Vice President Richard Nixon in November 1960.
The thing is, once in office, Kennedy quickly allayed the unfounded and frankly crazy assertions that he were made against him – in summary, that he was but a pawn in the hands of church leaders who were (equally crazy) out to crush America’s most cherished civic beliefs.
His election itself helped to break the logjam of bigotry. This was followed by the inauguration and his inaugural speech, which set a tone for the incoming administration. Kennedy’s popularity soared. JFK’s public approval rating in the Gallup poll of May 3, 1961, just months after taking office, was 82%. His average over time was 71%. (It was in the high 50s at the time of his death.)
We are living in a very different political moment now, of course. Donald Trump has sown so much distrust about the recent election that a great many of his followers believe that Joe Biden’s victory was rigged.
This is on top of the undermining of trust in basic American institutions that has gone on steadily ever since those shots rang out in Dealey Plaza nearly six decades ago.
President Trump has been the accelerant in this bonfire which threatens the future of our country and of democracy both here and around the world. His behavior since the election has brought matters to a crisis point.
Can Joe Biden, after taking office, pull us back from the brink? With Kennedy serving as an example, the answer is maybe. The polls measuring Biden’s approval in the post-inaugural period will be interesting to watch. New presidents typically enjoy a political honeymoon. At minimum, there normally is a grace period during which the American people give the incoming chief executive the benefit of the doubt.
To paraphrase Lloyd Benson, Joe Biden is no Jack Kennedy. Here’s hoping that being Joe Biden – the second Catholic president of the United States – will be enough.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. His latest book “JFK Rising” is available on Amazon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.