Matthews remembers Kennedy’s legacy on St. Patrick’s Day

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Let me finish tonight with this.

My brother Jim, who’s a Republican politician in Pennsylvania, gave me the greatest St. Patrick’s Day gift the other day. He told me how my mom voted in the 1960 presidential election–a family secret for a half century.

As some of you know, I grew up in a Republican family. Since we were Catholic, that presented something of a conflict back then. When I asked my Dad whom he intended to vote for, he said “Nixon” without hesitation.    

“Aren’t we Catholic?” I pushed him. “Shouldn’t we be for Kennedy?” 

“I’m a Republican,” he insisted.  

It was his simple, all-explaining answer. A Catholic convert with a mother from Northern Ireland and a father from England, Dad didn’t feel the tribal pull the way the all-Irish side of the family did.  

So my mother–born Mary Teresa Shields, Irish to the core, daughter to the Shields, Conroys and Quinlans all the way back to Donegal–is the person of interest this night before St. Patrick’s Day. 

I could tell she was keeping her sympathies to herself back then as if to make less trouble in the house. This week, my beloved brother Jim broke the family secret. He told me that while watching President Kennedy on television one day in 1961, out of nowhere, “Mom blurted out, ‘Don’t tell your father. He’d kill me, but I voted for him’ ”–meaning Kennedy.

Kennedy’s election, to those too young to realize it, was a huge historic event for the Irish, indeed for all Catholics, and, in a real way, for Jewish people and other minorities in this country. Jack Kennedy had broken the door down to the American presidency, changing things, showing that the country was changing, that opportunities were opening for all–right up to the very top. It was more than just getting through that door himself. 

As my son Michael pointed out the other day: in one year, Jack Kennedy’s election turned a segregationist party into a civil rights party. It was Kennedy who used his presidency to break down the barriers to racial equality. It was Kennedy who took federal troops into action to end discrimination, who went on national television in June 1963 to say, “It ought to be possible for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American,” and who introduced the historic civil rights bill.

It’s something to recall tomorrow on St. Patrick’s Day, that it was an Irish-American who did these great things. It is a matter of great family pride that my mom had the nerve to quietly break with my father’s old-school ways, walk into that voting booth, and make her mark for the blood.

 

From the Hardball blog archive: Read Chris’s tribute to Kennedy this past November here.

John F. Kennedy and Hardball Let Me Finish

Matthews remembers Kennedy's legacy on St. Patrick's Day

Updated