THE history of American politics is filled with intriguing twists and turns:
Early in 1960 I interviewed presidential candidate John F. Kennedy on a flight from Nebraska to Washington. He spent much of several hours defending himself against the accusation then engulfing him: That his Roman Catholicism involved a conflict of interest that should disbar him from the presidency.
Again and again he asserted that his only loyalty was to the United States and that, if elected, he would uphold the Constitution. But he was understandably angry and frustrated to be facing such questions. He complained, ``It isn't fair; it just isn't fair.''
Now it's ironical that Mitt Romney's Mormonism has been used against him by Ted Kennedy, who is making a frantic effort to save his Senate seat in Massachusetts. Senator Kennedy implied that the Mormons' history of denying leadership positions to blacks and women meant that Mr. Romney would likely follow such a path. He abandoned this tactic against George Romney's son when he found it wasn't going over with voters. But some who would otherwise have voted for Kennedy will probably vote for Romney because of the unfairness of the charge.
JFK was able to survive that criticism and become the first Catholic to reach the White House. En route, many Protestants voted for Kennedy simply because they thought it was unfair for him to be under attack because of his religion. That was true in the very important West Virginia primary where Kennedy beat a popular Hubert Humphrey in a heavily Protestant state. There's another glaring example of history's repetition in the forefront today: the resemblance of President Clinton's administration to that of Jimmy Carter. While Mr. Clinton is known to relish articles that compare him with JFK, Franklin Roosevelt, and even Lyndon Johnson, he doesn't enjoy being compared to Carter. That's what is so ironic about Mr. Carter's largely volunteer foreign-affairs activity in behalf of Clinton. This ``helping out'' is basically uninvited and unappreciated.
Clinton's and Carter's personalities are very different (Carter is private, almost shy; Clinton is a public man, at home with everyone). But they both were elected as the result of a Southern political strategy: Southerners who drew regional support mainly because of where they came from but also because they were able to persuade more liberal Democrats in the North to take a chance on them. Even then there were no more than two cheers for Carter and Clinton from Democrats in the North, who for the most part were suspicious of them both.
Carter had trouble with the liberals from the moment he came to Washington. They didn't like his independence, his unwillingness to meet with and kowtow to their leaders. So Carter's principal obstacle to getting things done was opposition from within his own party - more so than from the Republicans. In the end, the liberals mounted a challenge to his reelection by sending Ted Kennedy against him in the primaries - a divisive move that badly weakened the Carter campaign and may well have been the main factor in his later defeat by Ronald Reagan.
Clinton as a new president tried a different tack: He moved left and played up to the liberals and got their support. But they didn't really trust him. He wasn't one of them. But they liked his social-reform program and his appointments.
As time has gone on the president, to get things done in the face of Republican opposition, pulled together by Clinton's liberal agenda, has made compromises. This pragmatism has angered liberals. Indeed, the ``Clinton-as-a-waffler'' charge comes mainly from them, not the Republicans. Although he followed a different route, Clinton is back to where Carter as president always was: A president who is being ridiculed by his party's liberals. The word around Washington is that maybe, just maybe, a prominent liberal Democrat will be taking on Clinton in 1996 the same way Kennedy took on Carter in the primaries of 1980.