What Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy Have in Common

Say what you will about “light skin” and “Negro dialect.” Harry Reid was onto something. Obama broke the race barrier the way JFK broke the Catholic barrier—very carefully.

National Archive/Newsmakers
National Archive/Newsmakers

Leading into the 1960 presidential race, John F. Kennedy’s aide, Ted Sorensen, wrote that “assuming that his personal appeal, hard work, and political organization produce as before, Senator Kennedy will win in November, unless defeated by the religious issue.”

Sorensen’s recognition then about the nation’s only Catholic president amounts to an inverse and clearly more artful way of saying pretty much the same thing that Sen. Harry Reid said about then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 bid to become the first black president.

When Reid said that Obama would be a successful candidate in part because he didn’t have a “Negro dialect”—unless he “wanted to”—evident in his standard English oratory, he marked himself as woefully unversed in 21st-century nomenclature. But he might have also been right.

Americans like broken barriers. We don’t always think about the ways they get broken.

Reid observed that Obama toggles back and forth between the king’s English and African-American vernacular. That he possesses the useful ability to make a cross-section of voters comfortable with him as an individual.

There’s a real debate about how “offensive” Reid’s comments were. Not the hollow Republican charges of a Democratic Party “double standard” on racial issues, but about whether someone who leads the U.S. Senate—the world’s most prestigious deliberative body—understands the practical implications of the words coming out of his mouth.

But what seems a fair takeaway from Reid’s comments, as reported in the recently released Game Change, is that Reid understood Obama’s success as a national candidate and ascent to the presidency in the context of his Ivy League pedigree, his family background, his break with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his willingness to eschew racial score-settling. An African American won by leaning on, not overtly challenging, the system.

Kennedy and his team understood that he had to convince voters that he could govern as a president of all the people while staying true, on a personal level, to his Catholic roots.

Obama knew that his appeal was as a citizen of the world, but he was recognizable as someone rooted in the black community. He spoke in soaring terms using, as linguist John McWhorter writes, a “black sound.”