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You could feel the tension in the room before he started. "Kennedy came out of the back room all by himselfno aides around him," the late Jack Valenti, Lyndon Johnson's adviser, recalled. "No one was there to guard him... It's as if he said, 'O.K., you bastards. You want mehere I am'... By that one single gesture, by that simple act of one lonely man ready to take on the hordes, he threw the first punch, and it was about as brilliant a performance as I've ever witnessed."
Kennedy told them he had come to talk about "not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in... I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the Presidentshould he be Catholichow to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote." And then he made the prescient point, relevant to any member of a religious minority then or in years to come: "While this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed," he warned, "in other years it has beenand may someday be againa Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist... Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be youuntil the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart."
The speech was clean and raw and rational: he made the dispassionate arguments, but he also noted that his vision of a fair-minded America was the one he had fought for in the South Pacific and for which his brother had died in the war in Europe. He reaffirmed his complete independence from any Vatican agenda. But in the most dramatic flourish, he went further, in an extraordinary testimony to just how important that private faith was to him: "If the time should ever comeand I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possiblewhen my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office."
In the end, Kennedy won by fewer than 120,000 votes out of nearly 69 million castand given his skilled staff, deep pockets, the depth of Democratic hostility to Nixon and the hunger in the country for change, you could argue that his victory should have been much greater. Religion certainly worked against him in places, narrowing a margin his advisers once thought would be 5 or 6 points. But he turned out to have been right, that Catholic pride would prove more potent than prejudice. Catholics, who had voted 49% for Eisenhower four years before, went 78% for Kennedy. His religion helped him in the states that matteredmaking him the first candidate in history to win with a minority of Protestant votes.