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Jewish World Review April 12, 2000 /7 Nissan, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Key lessons from 1960 for 2000 presidential campaign --
THE RELATIVELY YOUTHFUL Presidential contenders seem evenly matched --- both of them simultaneously formidable and flawed.

The sitting Vice President, even after two terms in the shadow of his popular boss, still seems stiff, distant and formal, while ethical questions from the past continue to cloud his image.

The charming challenger, meanwhile, represents a fiercely competitive political dynasty. Skeptics suggest that his candidacy depends entirely on the political clout and financial connections of his famous father, and they whisper about his alleged playboy past.

Religion may play an unpredictable role in shaping the outcome since the challenger has become connected in the public mind with a controversial but powerful religious minority. Voters who worry about theological interference in politics may turn against him, but there's also the possibility that he'll enjoy a net gain by rallying the troops within his own faith community.

No wonder that political junkies savor every moment of the thrilling electoral duel of ….1960. That Nixon-Kennedy race represented a watershed in Presidential politics, and its eerie resemblance to the Bush-Gore race in the year 2000 contains several crucial lessons.

Of course, key differences may prove every bit as influential as the many similarities. Forty years ago, the incumbent president, Dwight Eisenhower, frustrated Republican managers with his obvious reluctance to use his personal popularity in behalf of his struggling heir apparent, Dick Nixon. By contrast, it's reasonable to expect Bill Clinton to do everything in his considerable power to install his loyal protégé as his successor.

Also counting in the Democrats' favor is the stark contrasts in public perceptions of the intelligence level of John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush. While both men boast impeccable Ivy League credentials (Bush, like Kennedy, holds a Harvard degree-- plus a Yale BA for good measure) not even the most devoted fans of the Texas governor would describe him as an intellectual. There is also the war hero factor-Kennedy captivated Americans with tales of PT 109, while W.'s honorable but uneventful experience with the Texas Air National Guard seems significantly less compelling.

Nevertheless, it's instructive to recall that even with his impressive resume, Senator Kennedy in 1960 inspired countless questions about his preparation for the presidency--- so much so that Nixon based his entire campaign on the slogan "Experience Counts." Without the perspective of the Cuban Missile Crisis and other dramatic events of his eventual Presidency, the 43-year-old candidate seemed considerably less seasoned than his 47-year old rival, who had already debated Soviet dictator Nikita Khruschev and met frequently with world leaders.

Other aspects of the 1960 race suggest that Al Gore should hesitate before selecting new drapes for the Oval Office. Forty years ago, informed opinion suggested that the first-ever televised debates would provide a crucial advantage for the tough, seasoned Nixon-just as most observers now expect Gore to embarrass the notoriously tongue-tied Governor Bush. Indeed, people who listened to the Kennedy Nixon debates on radio selected Nixon as the winner by a nearly two-to-one margin, but TV gave Kennedy an overwhelming boost for the simple reason that he came across more sympathetically on the tube than his sweating, earnest opponent. It is certainly possible that the telegenic, wry Governor of Texas might enjoy similar advantages over the hard-hitting but ham-handed Mr. Gore.

The religious factor in the race might also prove complex and unpredictable, as in 1960. Forty years ago, Democratic managers worried that Senator Kennedy's bid to become the first Catholic president might draw angry opposition from millions who feared Vatican influence on politics. By the end of the campaign, however, Catholic solidarity behind Senator Kennedy far outweighed anti-Catholic votes against him. By the same token, Governor Bush will work to overturn conventional wisdom by turning his Evangelical associations into a net plus through his appeal to Christian conservatives -a community, by the way, that represents nearly the same percentage of Americans (25%) as Roman Catholics in 1960.

Support from this religious group could help Bush maintain another key structural edge reminiscent of 1960--- control of the "Solid South." In an era in which Republicans could scarcely compete in most Southern states, JFK swept to victory in all states of the old Confederacy except Florida, Virginia and Tennessee-giving him nearly one third of the electoral votes he needed for victory.

To solidify this regional base and to unite his party, Kennedy reluctantly asked his chief rival for the nomination, Lyndon Johnson, to join his ticket-- despite the fact that he frankly despised the man. Following that precedent would argue for a Bush-McCain ticket-regardless of lingering personal resentment between the two men. . Whatever the choice of running mates, the 2000 campaign promises another recollection of 1960-as a wide open race and see-saw battle likely to remain unresolved until election day.

In 1960, this excitement helped drive voting turnout to record levels-and a breathtakingly thin margin of Kennedy victory that amounted to less than three tenths of one percent. In the upcoming millenium campaign, we can hope for comparably intense competition and surging participation from an engaged electorate.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Michael Medved