There was electricity in the North Carolina air in 1960 when John Kennedy, bronze, lithe, young and handsome, bounded up the steps of the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh.
The young senator carried an aura of excitement with him compared to dull, stolid Vice President Nixon representing the past. Kennedy seemed to embody the limitless possibilities of youth in a nation whose destiny was manifest.
A grade-school child of friends whom I had taken to meet the senator was full of chatter before meeting him but when he leaned down to greet her, she was so dazzled she couldn’t say a word.
I was a passionate supporter, but I was a reporter first, and ethics commanded that I report the news, and the news in early September wasn’t good for Kennedy. I reported that Democrats in the eastern part of the state “were going fishing.” They didn’t think they could support a Catholic.
Then on Sept. 12, Kennedy spoke at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He told the audience that no pope or bishop could tell a president of the United States what to do.
He reminded the preachers that, “It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom.”
And then he won them with this passage: “And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers did die when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches — when they fought for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom — and when they fought at the shrine I visited today, the Alamo. For side by side with Bowie and Crockett died Fuentes, and McCafferty, and Bailey, and Badillo, and Carey — but no one knows whether they were Catholics or not. For there was no religious test there.”
It was those last lines about the Alamo that touched the heart of patriotism, and when they were played over and over on TV in the eastern third of the state, those folks put up their fishing poles and carried North Carolina for Kennedy.
Sixteen years later, once again I felt an urgent connection with the campaign of Jimmy Carter. He had endorsed and joined a New South organization I was leading at the time, no longer a reporter but an advocate.
What Carter represented was an opportunity for the nation to welcome the South home, burdened as the region had been with its sins against its black citizens and its damaged self respect.
It was a time to feel not just welcome but at home in the White House among friends. Much was personally invested in Carter’s success and so sharp then was the pain of his failure.
When he left, the New South ended, too; there was nothing to sustain it and, anyway, nothing can be new forever.
Southern fortunes and my strong feelings about presidential politics revived with the Bill Clinton campaign. We knew each other and Josephine had served on a regional commission with him.
I learned on a flight with him from Washington that he was running, and at the Atlanta airport when Josephine came to pick me up, Bill hopped into the front seat of her Isuzu trooper to wait for his ride. The site of the two of them in a car that resembles German Gen. Rommel’s staff car is an indelible memory.
From Kennedy to Clinton, they and I have shared a common philosophy: In America every person, every person regardless of race, religion, income or station, has a right to dignity, work, basic comforts and a touch of joy in their lives — if it’s just a color television set.
Though Barack Obama is a complete stranger to me and to most of the region, I believe he shares the same philosophy and clearly Bill Clinton believes so, as well.
We had been reasonably convinced by Mitt Romney’s strained attempts to woo the right wing of his party that he did not care for those who were in the 47 percent, whom he wrongly thought did not even want to work for a living.
Then two Wednesday nights ago, Romney took a smart left turn and placed himself in the moderate zone, just to the right of center, philosophically just a few feet away from President Obama.
Romney’s latest reversal in what has been a series of backspins from previous positions has blurred his true character to such an extent that he is unknowable; a vote for him is a leap of blind faith.
But if he intends to campaign through October as a moderate mirror image of the president, there will be few fires of passion lit. A campaign of dramatic choices will have become boring, merely boring.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.