There was irony in the fact that George Herbert Walker Bush introduced former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s much-anticipated speech on religion and politics.
Almost four decades ago, the elder Bush’s long, slow trudge to the White House was interrupted by his defeat in a U.S. Senate race by a straighter-talking Texan named Lloyd Bentsen.
Bentsen is not well remembered for what he said in that 1970 campaign. But he added a memorable line to the American political lexicon 18 years later when, in another campaign against Bush, he debated his fellow Texan’s vice presidential running-mate.
Indiana Senator Dan Quayle’s attempt to compare himself with another youthful contender for national office, John Kennedy, brought a stinging rebuke from Bentsen: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. “
A demoralized Quayle whined, “That was really uncalled for, Senator.”
But Bentsen stood his ground. ” You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m the one who knew him well,” he told Quayle. “And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.”
After listening to Romney’s passable address at the George Bush Library Thursday, and to the overwrought comparison’s of the governor’s speech with Kennedy’s historic September 12, 1960, address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, it was impossible not to wish that Bentsen were still alive to answer the Republican presidential candidate.
Because, as his speech Thursday confirmed, Mitt Romney does not share Jack Kennedy’s courage or the former president’s view of the Constitution.
Kennedy told the ministers in Houston, “‘I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
Romney tried to say something like that, but he didn’t dare speak so bluntly. Too concerned about offending evangelical conservative voters – who don’t believe that separation of church and state is absolute and are abandoning his campaign for cynical crusade of wily Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee – the former governor could only muster a self-serving pledge not to offend those who do not share his Mormon faith. “If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest,” Romney squeaked.
Instead of promising the “absolute” separation that Kennedy pledged, Romney attacked those who would follow the lead of the 35th president and, for that matter, of the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who argued that the purpose of the Constitutional reference to freedom of religion had been to build ” a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Romney told his friendly audience at the presidential library in College Station, Texas, that, “No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God.”
Where Kennedy spoke frankly and in great detail about his Catholicism and about Catholics in politics, Romney eschewed a deep discussion of Mormonism or of his family’s historic leadership role in the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
Kennedy delivered the “profile-in-courage” speech of a statesman back in 1960, and he did so in state where prejudices against Catholicism were barely cloaked. But his comments were addressed as much to Catholics as to Baptists. “I do not speak for my church on public matters–and the church does not speak for me,” he declared. “Whatever issue may come before me as President–on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject–I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”
In stark contrast, Romney gave a political speech that will do little to reassure evangelicals who distrust Mormons or Americans who want their presidents to act in the national interest rather than in response to their religious impulses. “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it,” Romney said. “My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “Governor, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”