Washington is atwitter. Mitt Romney will give a "JFK speech" Thursday accounting for his Mormonism the way then-Sen. John F. Kennedy dealt with his Catholicism in 1960. Political junkies just love Kennedy nostalgia. So profound is the Kennedy cargo cult that Michael Dukakis - who was as much a reincarnation of JFK as Weird Al Yankovic is of Frank Sinatra - tapped Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his 1988 running mate because he believed it would revive the "Boston-Austin" axis of the JFK-LBJ ticket. Recalling the electricity and verve of that Democratic ticket, who among us can deny Dukakis' wisdom?
Such are the dangers of political nostalgia, which often drives candidates to repeat history as farce.
Until recently, Romney was rightly reluctant to give a "JFK speech." He seemed to understand that JFK's 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association has become the stuff of legend and any effort to match it would come up short. "I probably could never do something that would compare to what John F. Kennedy did," Romney said in October. "His was a masterpiece in American political history."
Well, now the former Massachusetts governor is going to talk about "faith in America," and in Texas no less. We don't know what he'll say, but it's easy to guess why he's saying it: Mike Huckabee. The Southern Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor is leading in Iowa polls, scuttling Romney's plan to use a victory there as a springboard to the nomination. Huckabee's charm, skill and socially conservative record explain much of his success. And Romney's Olympian hair, hypnotic teeth, squishy record and yacht-salesman demeanor are all important factors in why he can't seal the deal with some Iowa voters.
But there's another factor: Romney's heresy. I don't mean this in a pejorative sense, though others do. Mormonism is seen as a non-Christian cult by many conservative Christians, and a Romney nomination or presidency, they fear (I don't), would serve to advance the mainstreaming of Mormonism. In fairness, the Christian right is no monolith, and Romney has many religious conservatives in his corner. If Huckabee weren't in the race, he'd have more.