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

It wasn’t merely that Obama and Kennedy both succeeded because they were good-looking and eloquent, with young attractive families. They succeeded because those traits overwhelmed any reservations in the electorate about their status as “firsts.”

And the cycle will likely be repeated.

In 2012 or beyond, when the first woman becomes president, she’ll go through some version of the process Reid so inelegantly described. She’ll find a way to connect with male voters without forsaking the qualities that distinguish her as a woman—and then someone will probably write a book explaining how Sen. John Doe decided to back President Jane Roe because she had a “feminine sensibility” but could “talk like a man.”

That notion would be just as controversial as Reid’s statement, but still ring true because it’s the task of the trailblazing politician to create a new conventional wisdom without directly taking on the old one. A black man had no shot at being president—until he did. Men won’t vote for women, and straight people won’t vote for gay people—until they do.

Reid was clumsy, but his observation was as cold-eyed as Sorensen’s. It’s less about taking umbrage or excusing transgressions than it is one about how we view our society.

Salon’s Blair Kelley, acknowledging that “black candidates that look and sound more like a racially neutral ‘norm’ are more easily accepted by white voters,” also laments the risk that “accepting this as a matter of course degrades the quality of our democracy.

As long as Reid’s premise holds, each time a barrier is broken—Sonia Sotomayor, Annise Parker—we’ll have some kind of “Negro dialect” moment. His awkward truth-telling isn’t exactly cause for celebration. In this context, to know Americans is to love us, despite our flaws. Reid diagnosed. Someone else will have to offer a prescription.

David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.