There were nostalgic observations about the brilliance of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…” speech that frigid January morning back in 1960.
And there was also a fair bit of blarney, such as pundit Chris Matthews on The Colbert Report implying that JFK became president at a time when there were still “No Irish Need Apply” signs.
(Matthews, by the way, more than made up for this slip by writing a brilliant piece in The Washington Post about the very Irish, bipartisan friendship between Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan.)
Things also devolved into the absurd when it was revealed that the History Channel would not be running a docu-drama based on the life of JFK and other members of that fabled clan. Apparently, certain Kennedy family members did not want the shocking news revealed that JFK might have had a roving eye!
What not many people have noticed is that all of these JFK memories came just as folks on the other side of the political aisle were celebrating the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birthday.
Perhaps people have not linked these two events because JFK is arguably the most iconic Democrat of the past half a century, while Reagan is the most iconic Republican.
That being the case -- to go along with the fact that both Reagan and JFK have strong Irish roots -- it does beg the question -- who is the greatest, the most enduring, Irish American president?
JFK’s Irish roots, of course, are beyond reproach. The story of the journey from the wharves of Boston to Harvard to the White House has been told many times.
Perhaps this is what Ronald Reagan’s son Ron Junior had in mind when he traced his own presidential dad’s roots in his new book My Father at 100.
Yes, we know Reagan’s dad was an Irish Catholic with a drinking problem, and that Dutch’s great-grandfather, Michael, left Ballyporeen, Co. Tipperary, for the
But Ron Junior traces the Reagan roots all the way back to 10th century Ireland.
None of which is necessary. Because in the end, Ronald Reagan’s greatest impact on Irish America – for better worse – could be seen in the past several decades.
In that sense, Reagan is very similar to JFK.
Fifty years ago, it may have been hard to find a “No Irish Need Apply” sign.
But many Irish were still working class members of tough ethnic neighborhoods, not to mention devout members of a foreign religion. (It was only in 1950 that Paul Blanshard’s best-selling anti-Catholic tract American Freedom and Catholic Power sold almost half a million copies.)
Thus, the election of JFK was seen as an arrival, if not to the mainstream, then at least respectability.
Ah, but how the times swiftly changed. That hard-earned respectability was often sneered at as JFK’s noble 1960s veered off course and steered the U.S. into a period bordering on cultural anarchy.
A mere five years after JFK’s death, Reagan, in his run for the governor’s seat in California, tapped into Irish American frustration. A group that had striven so hard for acceptance was now being told that it was lame and square to strive for acceptance.
As the old saying goes, you become more conservative when you actually have something to conserve. This was only more true by 1980.
And of course, it is easy to see a connection between JFK’s poignant journey to his ancestral home in New Ross, Co. Wexford, in 1963, and Reagan’s trip to Ballyporeen some 20 years later.
But Reagan probably cemented his relationship with the Irish and other white ethnics in 1986 during the 100th anniversary celebrations for the Statue of Liberty – which was seen as a new Plymouth Rock for generations of Irish Americans who had intermarried with other ethnic groups.
Who’s the greatest Irish president? In just 1,000 days, JFK did set a tone and agenda remarkable for its ambition, from civil rights and the cold war to space exploration.
Reagan, though, was a game-changer. Even Democrats who have sought to carry JFK’s torch -- Obama, Clinton -- have voiced admiration for The Gipper and even copied certain policies, from cutting taxes to cultural conservatism.
Again, for better or worse.
(Contact [email protected] or facebook.com/tomdeignan)