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Diversity among Dem presidential hopefuls shows progress

As recently as 1960 the big “diversity” question was whether America was ready to elect a Catholic president. 

Sen. Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris' mother was Tamil-Indian and her father Jamaican.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

I’ll eventually get around to saying something (something amazing and historic) about the developing campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination, but indulge me first, if you have the time and inclination, in a little ancient history.

I’m so old that 1960 doesn’t strike me as ancient history. I turned 9 that year, and, growing up in Massachusetts in a liberal, Democratic FDR-worshipping Jewish family, we were very excited about the presidential prospects of our young senator, John F. Kennedy.

One of the big political/cultural questions that year was whether the country was ready to elect a Catholic as president. It had never happened. In fact, every president up to then was a full-on WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) except for a few who were predominantly Dutch (the two Roosevelts for example) and then-incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose ancestry was mostly German. Herbert Hoover was a Quaker, which might or might not be considered exactly “Protestant” by some people, for reasons I don’t understand.

But a Catholic? That would be a big diversity move to the America of 1960. Only one Catholic had ever been nominated: New York’s Democratic Gov. Al Smith in 1928. He had to overcome substantial anti-Catholic resistance to get the nomination, but he was crushed in the general election.

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One reason I bring this up is that I recently re-read a breakthrough book about the Kennedy-Nixon election, “The Making of the President 1960,” by Theodore White. Published in 1961, after closely following the 1960 campaign, White took an insiderish, novelistic approach to how presidential campaigns really worked.

As I read it in 2019, it seemed almost naïve. (White didn’t go anywhere near the matter of JFK’s philandering, for example, which I’m sure was considered too risqué to discuss at the time. The 1988 front-runner candidacy of Democratic Sen. Gary Hart was the first time the press decided that philandering by a candidate was newsworthy.)

But in 1960, the is-America-ready-for-a-Catholic-president angle was very big. JFK had to make clear that he would not be taking orders from the pope on how to run the country. And anti-Catholic bias was such a concern that the West Virginia primary became a very big deal.

In 1960, there were still very few primaries. You could run for president without competing in any of them. (In most states, the party bosses put together the delegations to the nominating conventions. And the few states that did hold primaries operated on a winner-take-all basis. Whoever won got all of a state’s delegates. So even candidates who were interested in using primaries to demonstrate their popularity would compete only in states where they thought they could finish first.)

In 1960, on the Democratic side, the two who hoped to primary their way to the nomination were JFK and Minnesota’s own Hubert H. Humphrey. The first primary, as always, was New Hampshire. But Humphrey had no incentive to challenge JFK in a state that bordered Massachusetts. JFK won easily.

Wisconsin was second, where Humphrey had a similar neighboring-state advantage. But JFK decided to compete there, and try to finish off Humphrey. Kennedy’s money and charisma enabled him to win there, too, leaving the Humphrey bid on life support.

The desperate Humphrey campaign searched for a place to try to stop Kennedy. They looked at the remaining (very limited) list of primaries and decided to make a last stand in West Virginia. I’m a huge Humphrey admirer. And this might not sound defensible. But in choosing West Virginia, Team Humphrey surely believed that they needed a redneck state with very few Catholic voters in which to underscore the risk the Democrats would be taking if they nominated a Catholic. West Virginia’s population was roughly 95 percent Protestant. Humphrey didn’t say anything despicable along those lines, but that clearly was the logic behind making a last stand in West Virginia.

Anyway, it didn’t work. JFK defeated Humphrey by a solid margin in West Virginia, Humphrey dropped out of the race, and that essentially ended any serious resistance to Kennedy for the nomination during the primary season. (He still faced some big names who hoped to stop his nomination at the convention, based, as I said above, on the fact that most of the delegates back then were not chosen in primaries. But, of course that didn’t work either. JFK was nominated and elected.

I hope that history wasn’t too boring. The main point that’s relevant to today is to recall that as recently as 1960 the big “diversity” question was whether America was ready to elect a president who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. And it turned out the answer was yes, we were ready for a handsome, rich, white, Irish Catholic. It was quite a big breakthrough.

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Since I read the book, I’ve been meaning to write some of this not-so-ancient history of what passed for diversity in 1960. But I got off my duff and did it today because I just looked at the latest update of the Washington Post’s perhaps silly, roughly weekly, ranking of the likeliest winner of the race for the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination. They call it the Post Pundit 2020 Power Ranking, in which members of the Post’s editorial and columnist crew generate their updated best guess of who will be the 2020 nominee.

I’ll provide a link below. We, the obsessed, may enjoy these exercises, but it’s vital to bear in mind that as predictions, they border on worthless, as evidenced by the fact that they redo them every week or so. They don’t even claim to be making predictions. It’s roughly equivalent to speculating who might win the SuperBowl three years from now.

But it does seem better than 50-50 likely that someone on their list of 15 – 15! – contenders will be the nominee. I’ve decided not to get overly excited about week-to-week movement on the list.

I bring it up today, after the long history lesson above, to note and to celebrate how far Americas (or at least Democrats) have come since 1960 in its willingness to consider individuals of various races, genders, religions, affectional orientations and fundamental ideologies.

The top four on the list (all apparently tied for No. 1) are Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former senator and VP Joe Biden, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

We may think of Harris as African-American. Her mother was actually Tamil-Indian and her father Jamaican. We have never had a president (nor a major party nominee) of Tamil, or Indian, or Jamaican ancestry. We never had a non-white president before Barack Obama, which was pretty recent and still pretty astonishing. We’ve never had a female president and we never had a female major party nominee before Hillary Clinton in 2016.

If elected, either Biden or Sanders would be the oldest ever president at time of election. (We have that right now, by the way. Donald Trump was 70 on Inauguration Day 2017. If he is the nominee in 2020, he will be 74. Biden will be 77. Sanders will be 79. I’ll confess that I’m a little nervous about the age factor, considering the strains of the job, and perhaps the electability factor. But certainly this paragraph reflects great progress against ageism in presidential politics.

Biden is also Catholic, which, as this piece above mentions was a pretty big deal as recently as 1960, but is now barely noteworthy in terms of diversity breakthroughs.

Sanders, in addition to being the oldest president ever at time of election, is also Jewish. We’ve never had a Jewish president, a Jewish major party nominee, nor a Jewish vice president. The closest we’ve ever come was Joe Lieberman, Al Gore’s Jewish running mate in 2000. Until recently, the Jewishness of a candidate would at least be somewhat interesting/controversial.

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Sanders would also be the first major party nominee or president who describes himself as a democratic socialist. And that, of course, will be controversial.

Buttigieg. OMG. If nominated or elected, he would be the youngest president ever (he’ll be 38 on Election Day; the Constitution requires 35;  the previous youngest ever on Election Day was the aforementioned JFK, who was 43.) Mayor Pete would also be the first of Maltese extraction. But, of course, I buried the lede: Buttigieg would the first openly gay, and gay-married nominee or president, and the first in that category to ever be seriously considered at any point in any presidential contest.

That’s just the top four on the Post list. Keep going. At No. 5 is Beto O’Rourke. Despite his nickname, he would not be the first Hispanic president, although he would be the first Hispanic-nicknamed. And despite looking very young, would be older than JFK on Election Day.

But after Beto, comes Cory Booker (who would be just the second nominee or president of color, after Barack Obama). And then, ranked 5-10, come four more women, three of them senators: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen Amy Klobuchar, Stacey Abrams (who is also African-American), and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

When JFK beat Nixon in 1960, there was exactly one woman in the Senate, Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first woman ever elected to the Senate without having first been appointed to the seat to serve out her late husband’s term. In 1964, Smith became the first woman ever to seek a major party nomination for president. In announcing, she said: “I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying for the finish. When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.”

She didn’t win any primaries but never dropped and become the first of her gender to have her name placed in nomination at a major party convention.

At present, without getting into any handicapping, we have a Democratic field that includes in its top 10 contenders (according to the Post power people) five women; two candidates of color; one Jew (also a self-described socialist) two candidates who would set a record for oldest at time of election, and one who would set a record for youngest, and who also be the first to break the homosexual barrier.

Personally, I haven’t settled on a favorite, and I hope Democrats who will figure out the best combination of a candidate who can win and who will be an excellent president. But I call this level of diversity in their current field progress, at least on one side of the partisan divide.

(Here’s the Post Pundit list.)