Saturday, November 1, 2008

Echoes of a Distant Time

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

During the presidential campaign of 1928, a photograph began circulating in rural areas of the Southwest showing Alfred E. Smith shaking hands with a fellow politician on the roadway of a tunnel. The image depicted Smith as he was officially opening the Holland Tunnel, which had been built during his tenure as governor of New York. The people thousands of miles away who received copies of the picture were given a decidedly different explanation: Smith planned to extend the tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Vatican, so he could take secret orders from the pope. As just about any informed voter that year already knew, Smith was the first Roman Catholic ever to win a major party’s presidential nomination.

A tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean is not feasible even today, 80 years later.

At the remove of 80 years, it is tempting to laugh off such a crude attempt at fearmongering and character assassination. With Catholics unquestionably part of the American mainstream — one of the most coveted swing groups of voters in the current race for the White House — the misrepresentation of the photo might seem the artifact of a benighted past.

Except for two things.

It took another 40 years before a Catholic got a presidential nomination (a Democrat, at that). And the anti-Muslim smear of this year.

As for the second point, scholars of Smith’s career and of American Catholicism say nothing in presidential history since 1928 more closely resembles the smearing of Al Smith than the aura of anti-Muslim agitation that has swirled around Barack Obama these past two years.

In the Times today there is a picture of a 50ish white man wearing a t-shirt that says Vote McCain Not Hussein. The implication is clear: Obama is a Muslim. Which he isn't.

The biggest single difference may be the postmodern aspect of the attacks against Mr. Obama. He is vilified not for the religion he follows but for the one he doesn’t, and much of his campaign’s energy has gone into reiterating that he is a Christian. Either way, the underlying premise of the rumors remains that a Muslim is unfit to be president.

As Colin Powell said, what is wrong with being a Muslim? Well, many people simply associate Islam with terror, and refuse to believe a Muslim can be a loyal American.

“What is similar in Smith’s time is that there was a widespread belief there was something dangerous about electing a Catholic as president,” said Allan J. Lichtman, an American University historian who is the author of “Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928.” “You couldn’t be a good American and serve American interests if you were a Catholic, because you were beholden to a foreign potentate called the pope and Catholicism held autocratic tenets.

“Likewise today, there is a widespread belief that somehow you cannot be a good American and be a Muslim at the same time, that being a Muslim means you have loyalties outside the United States — and, like Catholics in the 1920s, they are dangerous loyalties to militant groups seeking to do harm. There’s no truth to the allegations, then or now, but they are tenaciously held.”

So who are those who believe this nonsense? Yahoos and assorted right wing nuts, surely. But anyone else? As the governor of Alaska would say, youbetcha.

In the blogosphere and through mass e-mail, however, and even on Fox News and in Insight magazine, the disinformation has proliferated that Mr. Obama was raised as a Muslim, educated in a madrassa, influenced by an Islamist stepfather and sworn into the Senate holding a Koran.

Ah, Fox News, fair and balanced. Insight magazine? Conservative current events online magazine published by the Unification Church states its website description. Right. Two peas in a pod, this pair.

Robert A. Slayton, author of the Smith biography “Empire Statesman,” suggested in a recent interview that the religious bias against Smith and Mr. Obama served in part as a proxy for nativist resistance to an increasingly diverse nation. The United States in both the 1920s and the 2000s has been bitterly divided over mass immigration — by Jews and Catholics then, Hispanics and Muslims now.

The prejudice is virulent, though couched in homilies.

The most remarkable parallel to 1928 has to do with the idea that Smith was one of ‘those people,’ that the people he represented weren’t real Americans,” said Mr. Slayton, a professor of American history at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. “And when Sarah Palin talks about the ‘real America’ now, I hear an echo of that.”

Real Americans: heartland, small town folk, not Eastern elites, New York Times readers, and, by implication, Muslims, those of color.

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