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Opinion: The Irish-Catholic Obama

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A presidential candidate belonging to a historically despised minority group is elected partly because he and the way he talks don’t conform to a stereotype. Barack Obama, as characterized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? Yes, but also John F. Kennedy, America’s first (and so far only) Irish-Catholic president.

The controversy over Reid’s description of Obama as a ‘light-skinned’ black man ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one’ undoubtedly reflects a national unease about discussions of race. But it also recalls the fact that JFK was the opposite of the stereotype of an Irish Catholic from Boston (or anywhere else in America).

Kennedy was a graduate of Harvard, not Boston College, and the possessor of a WASPy Boston accent, not the working-class South Boston variety. And although he was a Catholic, he wasn’t a professional one. (Jackie Kennedy is supposed to have complained that it was unfair for people to hold her husband’s Catholicism against him because he wasn’t even a good Catholic.)

Contrast Kennedy with Al Smith, the Irish-Catholic candidate for president who lost in 1928. Times had changed between the two candidacies, of course, and anti-Catholicism was less virulent in JFK’s time than in Smith’s. But their differences in style foreshadowed the difference implied in Reid’s remarks between, say, Jesse Jackson and Obama.

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Race aside, trailblazers are often viewed as unrepresentative of their group. In addition to JFK and Obama, there is Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. That Ronald Reagan promised to put a woman on the court was undeniably a reflection of the advance of feminism. But O’Connor was not your stereotypical feminist. Not only was she a Republican, she had put her legal career on the back burner while she raised her children.

-- Michael McGough


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