Thursday, October 18, 2012

Today’s Politicians (and Voters) Could Learn a Lesson in Religious Tolerance – From Richard Nixon

One of the best things to emerge from the many books I’ve read about Richard Nixon and Watergate is that the political environment we live in today is not without precedent.

I hear a lot of journalists claim that the “current” election is the “nastiest ever” – something that’s said with every presidential election to come down the pike since I can remember.

I hear a lot of people stunned at the polarization of the electorate, electing their guy by the thinnest of margins.

They need to read more about Richard Nixon and, in particular, the elections of 1960 and 1964.

But to get back to the topic of religious tolerance and learning a lesson from Tricky Dicky. Here’s a bit from Jonathan Aitken’s “Nixon: A Life,” discussing the “Catholic Issue” concerning the candidacy of Jack Kennedy:
Coming from a religious minority group himself, Nixon deplored such bigotry. He went out of his way to stamp on all manifestations of the Protestant backlash. [H]e appeared on ‘Meet the Press’ on 11 September, where was questioned about Kennedy’s possible conflict of loyalties between Pope and country. ‘I have no doubt whatever about Senator Kennedy’s loyalty or about his ability to put the Constitution of the United States above any consideration,’ replied Nixon. He said he intended to keep religion completely out of the campaign and that he had ordered his supporters ‘not to discuss religion, not to raise it, not to allow anybody to participate in the campaign who does so.’

Nixon maintained this position even when it became apparent that the religious issue was unexpectedly hurting him rather than Kennedy. In the closing days of the campaign, Republican Catholics were being urged by the Democrats to vote for JFK, while Republican Protestants were being asked to do likewise – in order to prove that they were not prejudiced! Democratic TV commercials also played the religious card blatantly, using the theme that no one had asked Kennedy about his Catholicism when he had fought for his country in the Pacific. Such tactics came close to an attempt to turn the election into a reference between tolerance and intolerance.
I hope that sounds familiar. While I think it’s deplorable of Republicans to trout out offensive t-shirts that say, for example, ‘Let’s get the white back in the White House,’ Democratic winking and nodding at official and unofficial skullduggery when it comes to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is equally reprehensible, as are the media digs disguised as journalism.

Here are my qualifiers. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). But in 2008, I voted for Barack Obama. In 2012, I’m on the list of undecideds, trying to figure out which candidate has the least objectionable attitudes. This is on par with my presidential election voting record, where I have switched party loyalty, voting for the right man (or woman, or whatever) for the job, no matter what he looks like, what he thinks, or what “baggage” – and I use the term to describe baggage as seen by the opposition party, not baggage I see myself – he or she may bring into office.

Just as no one on the right has offered a credible argument why I should not vote for Barack Obama because of his skin color, no one on the left has offered a cogent argument why I should not vote for Mitt Romney because of his religion – though they trot out the same “he’ll take his orders from Salt Lake City” bugaboo that many JFK opponents in the 1960s trotted out concerning him taking orders from Rome. You’d think the party on the left would learn such lessons from the past, but as far as I can tell, the only things that exist from the past are rose-tinted memories of Reagan as a great president despite his many shortcomings in the 1980s and Kennedy as a great president despite his many shortcomings in the 1960s. There are no lessons to be learned, except the sophomoric one that says if an underhanded tactic is used by one side – officially sanctioned or not – then despite the moral and ethical obligations of those tactics’ first victims, the same tactics ought to be used in turn.

That’s the lesson I see from Nixon in 1960.

Here’s more from Aitken’s book:
As private polls began to indicate that the traditional Republican Catholic vote was avalanching to Kennedy, Nixon’s staff unanimously advised him to make a speech criticizing his opponent’s use of ‘reverse bigotry.’ Among the most vocal advocates of this recommendation were the Catholic members of the Vice President’s team. One of those was Peter Flanigan, a twenty-seven-year old New York investment banker who had been a contemporary of Bobby Kennedy at the Benedictine school of Portsmouth Abbey, Rhode Island.

‘I was appalled that we were doing nothing to deter the flight of the Catholic voters so I went to RN with some suggestions for advertisements that might stem the tide,’ recalled Flanigan. ‘He chewed me out. “don’t you play the religious card under any circumstances whatsoever,” he told me. “I absolutely forbid you to do anything which suggests that my campaign has a religious bias to it.”’
After he lost the 1960 election, Aitken says, he said the following to Flanigan:
Pete, here’s one thing we can be satisfied about. This campaign has laid to rest for ever the issue of a candidate’s religion in presidential politics. Bad for me perhaps, but good for America.
America, however, as our continued bigotry against people of color and against people of some minorities where even the tolerant are allowed bigotry, has not learned that lesson.

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