In 1870, Mark Twain published a short piece in The Galaxy under the heading “History Repeats Itself.” In it, he noted a “remarkable coincidence” between his own life and that of one Hon. T. H. Benton.
It seems that Benton swore off tobacco, gambling, and alcohol. He attributed whatever usefulness he had as a public servant to this abstinence. Writing that Benton’s life was almost an “exact epitome” of his own “moral career,” Twain asserted that he never chewed tobacco–at least, not before breakfast; he never gambled–not without a “cold deck” of cards tucked in his pocket; and he never drank–not a sip of water without a bit of alcohol to liven it up.
This year, we may be witnesses of a similar coincidence. John F. Kerry and his admirers have been quick to draw parallels between himself and John F. Kennedy. Both Democrats. Both U.S. senators from Massachusetts running for president. Both Navy veterans: Kennedy captained PT boats, Kerry captained Swift boats. Same initials, for goodness sake. And, both Catholics.
In fact, in the last presidential debate, Kerry cited his uncanny prefigurement: “As President Kennedy said when he ran for president, he said I’m not running to be a Catholic president. I’m running to be a president who happens to be Catholic.” Kerry was quoting a speech that Kennedy gave to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960. But this speech actually points out the difference, not the similarity, between the two JFKs.
Kennedy essentially told a public, still somewhat wary of “papists”: “I’m a Catholic; but don’t hold that against me.” Kerry, however, essentially tells us: “I’m a Catholic; but don’t hold me to it.” On one hand, Kennedy said: “If the time should ever come…when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.” On the other hand, Kerry said that his conscience would always take a back seat to his perceived duty not to legislate an “article of faith.”
For example, Kerry has said that he believes abortion is morally wrong–even that life begins at conception–but he insists that he cannot impose this belief on the American public or, for that matter, even one citizen. In 1984, when he first ran for the Senate, Kerry promised that he would vote against “any restrictions on age, consent, funding restrictions, or any law to limit access to abortion.” He kept this promise. Over 20 years, he been repeatedly voted for taxpayer funding of abortions, against requiring parental notification for a minor’s abortion, against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and against a ban on partial-birth abortions. On the matter of conscience, Kerry has even voted to require Catholic hospitals to perform abortions in order to receive any federal funds, such as Medicare or Medicaid payments.
Not surprisingly, in the third debate, Kerry said that his only litmus test for prospective justices would be that they support Roe v. Wade–the 1973 decision that held that a woman has a right to choose abortion at any time during pregnancy. As it happened, Kennedy appointed only one justice to the Supreme Court: Byron White, a Democrat. In Roe v. Wade, Justice White filed one of the strongest dissenting opinions the Court has ever produced. He wrote that the majority of the Court had “simply fashion[ed] and announce[d] a new constitutional right, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action.” In White’s view, the Court’s decision constitutionally neutered the “people and the legislatures of 50 states” by its exercise of “raw judicial power.”
In his potential administration, Senator Kerry makes it clear that justices like President Kennedy’s Byron White need not apply.
We might find Kerry’s supposed déjà vu regarding President Kennedy to be comical if it did not involve matters of conscience and protection of human life. To paraphrase a famous rebuke of a former Democratic senator from Texas to a colleague in a vice-presidential debate: “Senator Kerry, we knew John Kennedy, and you are no John Kennedy.”
–Brian P. Golden is a Democratic member of the Massachusetts house.