Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times stated Thursday: “Barack Obama this week gave the best political speech since John Kennedy talked about his Catholicism in Houston in 1960.… It was not a sound bite, but a symphony.” Effusions of this sort have been common in the last few days, so in that respect the comment is not particularly noteworthy. But I was struck by the reference to then-Senator Kennedy’s September 12, 1960, speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which JFK addressed the question of whether a good Catholic can also be a good president. Would he take orders from Rome? Would he be a shill for the Vatican? Or could he maintain the wall between church and state, between private faith and public policy? The issue had arisen in 1928 campaign of Al Smith, who tried not to talk about it, to his disadvantage. Kennedy took the issue head on.
A group of leading Protestants, including Norman Vincent Peale, had organized a group called “Citizens for Religious Freedom” to bring the matter to public attention. Peale backed Richard Nixon, but Nixon had no ties to the group. Indeed the vice president, a Quaker, stated that it would be best to take the issue of religion out of the race altogether. “I would hope we could have a cutoff on this discussion,” Nixon said. “I would hope Senator Kennedy would feel the same. If the two candidates do not discuss it, it won’t be in the news.”
Kennedy agreed with Nixon, and said in response, “I wish we could cut off debate on this subject right now. I think we’d all be better off.” This was the context in which Kennedy went before 500 of Houston’s men of the cloth.
That raises one important point of contrast to the Obama speech. Kennedy went before an audience that he knew could be hostile, and was at best neutral. Some newspaper headlines invoked the image of Daniel in the lion’s den. Obama, on the other hand, spoke to a small group of invited supporters. Both received applause during their appearances, but that was not exactly the achievement for Obama that it was for Kennedy. Had Obama appeared before a gathering of critics of Reverend Wright’s general orientation, or, more dramatically, before Rev. Wright’s congregation, the analogy would hold better. As it was Senator Obama did not assume anywhere near the risk that Senator Kennedy did.
A second critical difference that magnifies the first point is that after Kennedy delivered his remarks he engaged in a question-and-answer session with the ministers. He answered every question that was put to him, as many as they wanted — approximately 18 total, depending on how one counts follow-ups and comments. The questions and answers tended to be very lengthy and detailed. Kennedy answered without notes, keeping his temper even when the questions were a bit arch.
Comments afterwards from participants showed that they thought the senator was fair with them, that he may not have convinced them that he would be a good president but they were less concerned than they had been. Self-described “hard-shell Baptist” House Speaker Sam Rayburn was less equivocal. “As we say in my part of Texas, he ate ’em blood raw,” he said. “They only asked silly questions.” Vice President Nixon praised the speech, and former President Harry Truman praised Nixon’s handling of the situation. Norman Vincent Peale was satisfied (though not all Protestant clergy were) and resigned from the Citizens for Religious Freedom. A Washington Post editorial entitled “Enough Said” summed up the general attitude. Kennedy’s speech was not a call to do anything except move on to other issues.
Comparing the two speeches is valid, insofar as both were addressing potential issues of bias that could have an impact on voter perceptions. Both men were trying to put to rest nagging questions that might divert attention from other, more substantial issues. But there are enough differences between the two situations to resist granting Senator Obama the Kennedy mantle in such a dramatic fashion.
Apart from drawing those contrasts, let’s look at another claim — that this was the best political speech since September 12, 1960. Is the statement valid? I suppose it hinges on what one’s definition of “best political speech” is. At some level that is a subjective matter. But can Obama’s speech really be the best one since a 1960 JFK speech that is itself not even the most noted of Kennedy’s performances? Unlikely. Take the following list into account when ranking the best, most important, most significant, or oratorically brilliant speeches of the last 48 years:
‐ Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream,” speech, August 1963 (pretty glaringly and obviously better and more important than Obama’s speech — what an oversight!) “A Time to Break Silence,” April 1967, and the haunting “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968, the day before King was assassinated;
‐ Malcom X, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” April 1964 — a favorite of Reverend Wright’s I have no doubt at all;
‐ Barry Goldwater’s June 1964 acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination, “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty”;
‐ Lyndon Johnson’s “The Great Society,” May 1964, “We Shall Overcome,” March 1965, or his address to the nation March 31, 1968, in which he announced his decision not to seek another term of office;
‐ Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, July 1979 — the “malaise” speech that does not use the word malaise — which really may have been Carter’s best speech, for all the flak he got afterwards;
‐ Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” October 1964 (a.k.a. “The Speech”), “The Evil Empire,” March 1983, Remarks at Pont du Hoc (The D-Day 40th-anniversary speech) June 1984, the Space Shuttle Challenger Tragedy Address, January 1986, or the magnificent remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, June 1987 (“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” A symphony and sound bite all in one. In his wildest dreams Senator Obama would make such a historically significant speech);
Just trying to keep it all in perspective.
— James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University, and author of a forthcoming book on the Tet Offensive.