The discussions of “only” candidates, Obama and Clinton, remind me on this St. Patrick’s Day, of another first. In a recent book, I describe the historical “firsts” for Irish Catholic Americans this way:
Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic candidate for president in 1928, was the first Irish Catholic to carve out an important role in presidential politics. Yet his Catholic religion counted against him in this first Irish Catholic presidential campaign. Not until 1960, more than three hundred years after the first few Irish Catholics had come to the United States and more than a century after sizable Irish Catholic communities had been established, was the first and only Irish Catholic (also only Catholic) president elected. Six of the thirty-six presidents, from Washington to Nixon, had Irish American backgrounds, but except for John Kennedy all of these were Protestant Irish, as were the more recent presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
In the 1960 presidential election, Irish Catholic votes in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania helped to create John Kennedy’s narrow victory. As president, Kennedy acted not only on behalf of Irish Americans but also, to some extent, on behalf of America’s other emergent urban racial-ethnic groups. Thus, Kennedy appointed the first Italian American and the first Polish American to a presidential cabinet and the first African American to head an independent government agency.
I might add too that it was black voters in a few states, like Texas, that also gave key states to Kennedy. There are some interesting comparisons and contrasts here with this year’s election.