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Nine Catholics selected for presidential tickets since 1928

Kennedy, Biden only ones to make it to White House

Published: November 17, 2020   
CNS / courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum via Reuters
Brothers John, Robert and Edward Kennedy are pictured in Hyannis Port, Mass., in this photograph taken in July 1960. Sixty years ago, on Nov. 8, 1960, JFK became the first Catholic to be elected U.S. president. President-elect Joe Biden will be the second Catholic president in U.S. history.

WASHINGTON -- Thirty-three men between George Washington and John F. Kennedy served as U.S. president. Until Kennedy, all were white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men. It took 172 years for a Catholic to win the presidency.

The wait for the next Catholic president has been sitting at 60 years -- until Nov. 7 when the media announced Joe Biden as the presumptive president-elect, unseating the Republican incumbent, President Donald Trump.

From the time of Washington's election in 1788, 140 years elapsed until the Democrats' nomination of New York Gov. Al Smith to run for president in 1928. Smith, the first Catholic major-party presidential nominee, was hounded by charges of "rum, Romanism and rebellion" by his political opponents in Prohibition-era America. Smith lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover.

The rum-Romanism-rebellion trope was a holdover from the 1884 presidential campaign. James Blaine of Maine, a Republican, was a Presbyterian as was his father. But his mother was a Catholic, and his parents agreed to raise their sons as Presbyterians and their daughters as Catholics.

The campaign slur by a key Republican energized Catholic voters in New York against Blaine, who lost New York and its 36 electoral votes by 0.10 percent. Had Blaine won New York, he would have had an advantage of 17 electoral votes -- and the presidency.

JFK never got to serve his full term, being assassinated in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963 -- the most recent president to be slain by an assailant's weapon.

Less than a year later, William E. Miller, a seventh-term congressman from New York, was nominated to seek the vice presidency by the Republicans in support of Barry Goldwater at the top of the ticket. That made him the first Catholic candidate for the vice presidency. He grew into such obscurity that, in the mid-1980s, he made one of the "Do you know me?" commercials for the American Express card. His daughter, Stephanie, a comedian and talk-show host, became more famous than he did.

It was not until 2012 when another Catholic appeared on the GOP ticket, when House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin ran as Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick. The current vice president, Mike Pence, was raised Catholic but became an evangelical Christian in adulthood. No Catholic Republican nominee has ever graced the top of the ticket.

Sargent Shriver, an in-law to the Kennedys, was George McGovern's running mate in 1972, but the McGovern-Shriver ticket was swamped by the Richard Nixon-Spiro Agnew reelection bid.

JFK's election as president, in which he squarely took on anti-Catholic bias, broke a WASP stranglehold on the White House and led political parties to consider characteristics other than regional difference to balance a presidential tickets.

In the absence of a Catholic sitting in the Oval Office, attention went to the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, as Clinton had attended Georgetown University in Washington and received a bachelor's degree there. He became the first graduate of a Catholic college to make it to the White House.

It was not until 2004, though, that another Catholic, John Kerry, captured the Democratic nomination.

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic, became the first woman on a presidential ticket, although she and presidential hopeful Walter Mondale lost badly to the re-election campaign of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

In 2008 when the Barack Obama-Biden ticket was elected, it made Biden the nation's first Catholic vice president.

Four years ago, Hilary Clinton, in a groundbreaking campaign as the first woman to run for the nation's highest office -- with a U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Catholic, as her running mate -- lost the election to Trump.

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