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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

The Difference

Texans have always had a good amount of theatrical performance in them. Lloyd Bentsen's classic debate set-up and beat-down of Dan Quayle in 1988 is the stuff of legend. Perhaps even better was Lyndon Johnson's quip after his landslide election in 1964 about how, despite the presence of so many Ivy League graduates around, a Texas State Teacher's College alum was the one in charge. Even George W. Bush's bullhorn talk with workers at Ground Zero (the first and last time I was inspired by #43) was uplifting when he said, "I can hear you, and the people who knocked these buildings down are gonna hear from all of us."

But perhaps the best theater of any Texan goes to Jack Valenti. He should have a knack for it; after serving as a close aide to President Lyndon Johnson, Valenti served as President of the Motion Picture Association of America for 38 years. Needless to say, this guy has been in — and made — a whole lot of history.

But how does this accomplished man set up the most masterful performance in Texas political history? Quite simply he doesn't; he gets out of the way and allows John F. Kennedy to deliver one of the most famous speeches in American history on September 12, 1960.

You may have seen clips of this speech on television last week as another man from Massachusetts geared up to convince an audience that his convictions are more important than his particular religion. The famous "Catholic Speech" given by JFK in Houston has been the focus of the nation as Mitt Romney tries to follow in Kennedy's footsteps.

But he can't.

And it has nothing to do with his faith.

To fully understand this, I think it is important to understand two things about Kennedy's speech. First: how he said it, the theater of it all.

In Valenti's wonderful work, "A Very Human President," he describes how he was in charge of putting together the event for Kennedy's speech. Valenti writes,

Kennedy pledged he would confront Protestant ministers, live on television, in which this religious issue so long quivering beneath the surface was now to erupt in the open, and like a live grenade it was to be tossed from one to the other of the opposing forces.


Hundreds of ministers waiting, with only a handful of partisans in the audience, the grounds, as it were, were in the hands of the enemy, Kennedy suddenly appeared at the door to the ballroom.

No one was with him. He was utterly alone. Not one aide or friend or relative or anyone was near him. He paused only momentarily at the entrance, and then strode, purposefully, easily, with neither nod nor smile, but strangely confident, through the aisleway and across in front of the banked chairs where the ministers sat, and then to the rostrum where he sat alone.

It was a brilliant tour de force. Somehow, that act of serenity, the march to the microphone alone with no one to guide or counsel him, set the whole meeting at tilt, and reset the combat scales. I cannot probe the minds of those ministers even now, yet I cannot but believe that they compulsively admired his emboldened entrance, as if he were saying to his doubters, "I am not afraid of you or this confrontation."

The rest is history.

Solitary, defiant, and fearless are words that Valenti uses to describe the event. And if you are auditioning on the biggest stage in the world for the most important role of your career, those qualities are essential. The framing was central in creating the good theater.

But many a great stage has fallen to a bad performance. The second lesson of September 12, 1960 was what Kennedy said. While there are many classic lines in the speech, I believe the most powerful was when Kennedy talked about his military service. He stated,

This is the kind of America I believe in – and this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a ‘divided loyalty,’ that we did ‘not believe in liberty’ or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the ‘the freedoms for which our forefathers died.’

Kennedy was a war hero, and by pointing out his service in defense of the country and our constitution, he illustrated the common sacrifice of military service. His actions showed a love and dedication for our country. It was no slap to the church — in fact later in his speech he says he would rather resign the Presidency rather than violate his conscience — but a shared experience of what defending our nation really meant.

The performance went so well, both in the staging and the speech itself, the Kennedy campaign used tapes of the event throughout the nation. Valenti says how particularly proud Lyndon Johnson was of this pivotal event taking place in his Texas.

Now we come to Thursday, December 6th, 2007, at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is losing his lead among in the Republican primary due to the rise of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's appeal to "evangelical conservatives," tries to copy Kennedy's success and win the Republican nomination.

Mitt has three things working against him. First, his audience is not the American voting public. It is the religious right. Kennedy's speech appealed to all Americans, while Romney's will be targeted at only those who believe abortion, the gay agenda, and gun control to be the biggest threats to the country. Romney will have to convince skeptical Christian conservatives that his particular religious background is less important than their shared, uncompromising belief on core issues. While he may be able to do this in the end, it is only one hurdle in an obstruction-filled road.

He then has to lean on his public service as Governor of Massachusetts, an item of contention among the religious right. As Rudy Giuliani would tell you, Romney's record as Governor was not that of a social conservative. TV clips and YouTube videos show Romney defending a woman's right to choose and tolerance for gays and lesbians; he has been hunting fewer times than Giuliani has been married. To put it another way, his public service is no asset in trying to convince the religious right to accept him as one of their own. Kennedy spoke of the shared sacrifice of millions of Americans as his proof of patriotism, an ideal everyone could identify with; Romney has a record directly in conflict with the core convictions of his narrow audience.

Finally, I believe Romney will not be able to show the strength that Kennedy displayed in both the staging and rhetoric of his speech. Being apologetic for his past performance by focusing on a narrow audience even as he evokes a man who unapologetic about his beliefs and service just does not seem Presidential to me. It simply does not come off as authentic.

Kennedy's speech has always been a favorite of mine because of his sense of duty and his definition of what it means to be an American. Romney's speech was interesting enough to watch, not only for the staging and wording but also because of the sense of history cast by Kennedy's speech; history, however, has a long shadow, and I am wondering what of Mitt Romney's speech, if anything, will stand out or stand the test of time.

There is one key thing I have left out in the specifics of this discussion, and indeed, Romney only mentioned it once: the Mormon Church. To be perfectly honest, I feel it is inconsequential. I've worked on the campaigns of two state representative races in Texas, winning both. Neither of the elected Representatives are Christians. I feel I have more in common with their beliefs than those members who may share my church but not my convictions.

What type of faith one has is much less important to me than the faith they have in their fellow man. It is our shared belief in something bigger than ourselves that transcends religious boundaries. For all the issues that may come up as a result of Thursday's speech, I certainly hope religious specifics are not one of them. Our chapel of democracy should welcome all and judge none.

We will see if Romney can make Republican primary voters feel the same way. But one thing is for sure: he is no Jack Kennedy.

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