WASHINGTON — Joe Lieberman's presidential candidacy reminds me of how much progress against prejudice has been made in the US over the past half century.
When John F. Kennedy threw his hat into the presidential ring back in 1960, editorials across the nation raised this question: "Can a Roman Catholic become president?" There was strong doubt that any Catholic - even an attractive fellow like Kennedy - could leap over this barrier of prejudice.
Yet when Mr. Lieberman made his announcement of candidacy there was very little stir about his being Jewish. Indeed, commentators pointed out that he had become the first Jewish presidential candidate of a major party, but they sized up Lieberman and his prospects on the basis of what kind of person he was and where he stood on the issues. The consensus, as I found it: That Lieberman's moderate positions would make it difficult for him to gain the nomination but, should he accomplish that, he would likely become a strong opponent of President Bush. And repeatedly I heard this assessment of Lieberman: That he was a person of character, a most capable individual, and a candidate with charisma.
I was with Senator Kennedy when he flew to Wisconsin and Nebraska to file the papers of entry into those first presidential primaries of 1960. Indeed, I sat with him on his entire trip as he gave me an interview I had been seeking for several weeks. He answered many questions during those long hours on his prop plane, the Caroline. But without my prompting he continued to get back to the question of the day: Could his religion bar his making it to the White House?
In various ways Kennedy stated how firmly he adhered to the principle of the separation between church and state. He clearly wanted me - and my paper, of course - to know how secular he was: How seldom he attended church or even talked religion. At one point he said, "All this talk about the pope getting into the White House if I'm elected: That's ridiculous."
At another point Kennedy said how often he had heard Protestants accuse Catholic priests of telling their people how to vote. "I've never seen that happen," he said. Then he called on a newsman friend who was standing nearby in the aisle of the plane (obviously another Catholic) and asked him about whether he had ever heard a priest give this advice. The reporter said "no," and then laughed and said he hardly ever got to church. Kennedy laughingly replied: "And neither do I."
But it was clear that Kennedy knew he would somehow have to find a way to defuse this explosive Catholic issue if he would have a chance of beating Vice President Richard Nixon. So as he moved into his campaign across the nation, Kennedy kept hammering away on the theme of how strongly he believed in the separation of church and state. Then he decided to walk into the lion's den: He accepted an invitation to talk to a group of Baptist ministers in the South. After meeting with him they said they were satisfied with his answers on the Catholic question, and the air began to clear for Kennedy. Enough prejudice was swept aside that the Massachusetts senator was able to break through that religious barrier. And since then, that roadblock to the presidency has disappeared.
A practicing Orthodox Jew, Lieberman observes strictures on his working habits. He speaks of this freely - and did so when he was running as Al Gore's No. 2. Lieberman's religious strictures prohibit work on the Sabbath (from sundown on Friday through sundown on Saturday). But he says this restriction contains an exception that could allow him to deal with pressing presidential matters during that period.
What's interesting to me, as I look back, is how Kennedy was working so hard back then to persuade everybody how weak and unimportant the ties were that he had with his church. But here we have Joe Lieberman being quite open about his Jewishness and what it means in his life. He makes it clear that his religion is his reference point for the moral positions he takes - and would take as president. I think this is going to help him - not hurt him - in this campaign.