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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Playing Faith Card With Chutzpah in Politics of the '00s

August 09, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

"Because I am a Catholic and no Catholic has ever been elected president, it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in--for that should be important only to me--but what kind of America I believe in."

--John F. Kennedy, 1960

"Dear Lord, maker of all miracles, I thank you for bringing me to this extraordinary moment in my life."

--Joseph I. Lieberman, 2000

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What kind of America you believe in depends on when and where you were born, what you were taught, how much of it you believe and what you intend to do with the information.

A full 40 years after JFK came to Los Angeles to be formally nominated as next Leader of the Free World, our long red rug needs to be dry-cleaned and rolled out for JIL, another handsomely dressed and tressed, Ivy League-educated, staunchly Democratic and devoutly religious senator from New England, eager to ask with vigor not what his country can do for him.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 14, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Campaign column--In a column by Mike Downey published Wednesday, it was stated that John F. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to head a presidential ticket. Al Smith, a Catholic, was the Democratic Party presidential candidate in 1928. Kennedy became the first Catholic elected to the office.

In a perfect world, Joe Lieberman's spiritual beliefs would be nobody's business, any more than Jack Kennedy's once ought to have been.

Ours is a world yet imperfect, though, so Al Gore's handpicked sidekick is going to deal daily with the fact that he is unlike every vice presidential nominee before him. Fortunately, he seems ready, willing and positively excited to do so, so let the convention commence. This is one small step for Lieberman, but one giant leap for Liebermankind.

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At what amounted to a coming-out party Tuesday, the new country-eastern duo of Al and Joe joined hands in Nashville and proclaimed their partnership the most revolutionary of its kind since Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic at the top of his party's ticket.

The news that Gore had chosen someone of the Jewish faith was right there in first paragraphs for all to read, mentioned before practically anything else about him, including Lieberman's age, number of terms in the Senate and strongly critical views of a nice young Jewish woman's prior relationship with Gore's randy boss.

If there was any desire to dismiss this distinguishing characteristic as a nonissue, as Kennedy so often endeavored to do, it wasn't evident Tuesday. At one point, Lieberman referred to Gore as "a servant of God Almighty," and also happily alluded to Gore's chutzpah, a word not heard in Tennessee as often as in some states.

How refreshing, that a senator's religion is something to be discussed and not ducked. Gore spoke of how in 1960, Americans "voted with our hearts to tear down a mighty wall of division. We made history."

(He can be forgiven for getting carried away with the use of the word "we," Gore having been 12 1/2 years old when Kennedy was elected.)

"I am a Catholic," Kennedy once said while campaigning in West Virginia, according to a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "but the fact that I was born a Catholic, does that mean I can't be president? I'm able to serve in Congress and my brother (war hero Joe Jr.) was able to give his life, but we can't be president?"

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Kennedy critics said a Catholic president would be accountable to the pope, would do his bidding. Kennedy gave a speech to Protestant ministers in Texas at which he stated flatly that no prelate would tell a president what to do any more than a Protestant minister would instruct parishioners on how to vote.

The faith card was played hard and often. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recalled that Hubert Humphrey, while vying with JFK in the Democratic primaries, spoke at a Jewish Community Center in Wisconsin and pointedly said: "They say the Humphrey campaign is disorganized, but I want you to know that the most organized thing that ever happened almost destroyed civilization."

Religious affiliations of candidates are no longer taboo topics, and with any luck they won't be as sensitive as they were 40 years ago, when Walter Cronkite brought up the "Catholic issue" in a JFK television interview and ended up enraging John and Bobby both.

No one of Joe Lieberman's faith, however, has ever held one of this nation's two highest offices, which makes him unique. JFK and LBJ tried to downplay the subject in 1960 whenever it came up. Al and Joe, though, should continue to do in 2000 what they're already doing--talk about it loudly and proudly.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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