John Kennedy was elected president when I was eight years old, and his election remains one of the strongest memories I have from that time of my life. There are a lot of reasons why this is so, but I guess the main reason is the way his election affected my parents, and the social group I grew up in. We were Irish Catholics, and Kennedy wasn't just one of us -- he was glamorous, articulate, obviously intelligent, married to a lovely woman and father of two adorable kids, and he represented the arrival of our ethnic group into the accepted mainstream of American life.
Most people today either don't know or don't want to remember this, but there was a time -- and not too long ago -- when Irish Catholics were the Hispanics of their day. As fresh-faced immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, Irish Catholics worked as day laborers and domestics. My grandfather worked as a day laborer in a Brooklyn shipyard; my step-grandmother washed floors at Hunter College in Manhattan. Like the Hispanics of today, they were considered a drain on society by Protestant, white, middle-America -- congenitally lazy, stupid, overly religious, politically passive, and fundamentally, probably genetically, incapable of true assimilation into the American mainstream. Irish Catholics were The Other, and like immigrant groups before and since (the Italians, the Eastern Europeans, the Polish, the Jews, the Asians, and today, the "illegals," ie: Hispanics) were treated like second and third-class citizens.
(You'll notice I put "illegals" in quotes. That's because I believe our current immigration laws are hypocritical and disingenuous, written to pander to the same mentality that treated my grandparents as social inferiors. Current immigration law just continues a long tradition of abusive, dishonest and, frankly, racist treatment of immigrants. Scapegoating the Other worked for the "Know-Nothings" in the 19th century and continues to work for know-nothings today.)
John Kennedy's election changed the status of Irish Catholics in America. He was a symbol of our acceptance into the political mainstream (we'd been part of the political process in major urban centers for decades, but barely welcome within the main party system, despite the Democratic party's willingness to accept our votes). It was, in short, a very big deal for my parents and the nuns at my school -- despite the fact that under normal circumstances, my parents, staunch Republicans, would never have voted for a Democrat, and the nuns, representatives of a conservative, patriarchal religious oligarchy, wouldn't have had much interest in any kind of political activity.
In a way, his election was a sign that America itself was growing up.
His candidacy, and his election, was a transforming event.
That's not to say it was easy, or went smoothly, or that he wasn't challenged -- outrageously and unfairly -- because of his religious beliefs and ethnic background. He had to separate himself politically from supporters who brought some ugly baggage to his campaign (among them, his anti-Semitic and Nazi-sympathizing father); he had to address concerns about the extreme religious views expressed by his church; and he had to reassure America that he was more than just an eloquent voice speaking inspiring words. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't pretty, and in the end, it even got kind of ugly.
But he prevailed, and while ultimately tragedy consumed his presidency, the very fact of his election inspired a generation that went on to change the world.
Food for thought on another election day.
Can you tell I'm a supporter of Barrack Obama?