Mitt Romney’s conflicts with the Kennedy family go back well before comparisons of his religious speech to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech in Dallas, where he addressed a group of Baptists on the topic of church and state. In the early 1990s, when Romney challenged Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy for his Senate seat, the issue of religion came up. The Boston Globe ran a piece on November 14, 1993—introducing Romney the politician to Massachusetts. His Mormon faith received only cursory attention within a larger biographical context. But as the Senate race heated up, Romney’s faith received increasing notice, and the first of many comparisons to the senator’s brother, John Fitzgerald, appeared in the press. In a May 22, 1994, Boston Globe article, John Aloysius Farrell discussed “The Mormon factor; Like JFK three decades ago, Mitt Romney has to overcome religious prejudice.” Another story appeared in the Globe on the same day by Frank Phillips and Don Aucoin.
The 1994 Senate race provided a window into some of the challenges Romney would face in the 2008 presidential campaign. Back then, the press was largely sympathetic to Romney’s dilemma as a Mormon candidate in a politically liberal state—reporters cast him as part of a religious minority and took exception to some of the blistering remarks by Ted Kennedy’s campaign surrogates and tactics that painted him as a zealous adherent of a nefarious sect. Yet it was the press that, even while defending Romney, were reminding voters of an aspect of Romney’s personal life he may have wished would stay relegated to offstage.
In the lead-up to Romney’s formal announcement for president, the press was already vetting him. Just one month after the Globe reported that Romney had acknowledged he was thinking about running for president, an article appeared in the same paper on July 21, 2005, entitled “Are we ready for a Mormon president?” Like much of the coverage from the 1994 race, the article defended Romney and critiqued attacks by liberals on the controversial or “exotic” elements of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On February 13, 2007, when he entered the race, a spate of stories addressed the issue of his faith head-on. USA Today ran a page-one story that day entitled “Will Mormon faith hurt bid for White House? Mitt Romney says his religion isn’t a factor, but some voters say it is.” However on the day after his announcement, a number of major national and regional papers ran stories focusing more on the challenge Romney would face in convincing the party faithful of his conservative credentials than of the orthodoxy of the LDS church, although almost all dealt with the latter subject, framing it as more an obstacle than a boon to his candidacy. On February 14, 2007, Dallas Morning News columnist Carl Leubsdorf asked “Can Romney win? About-face on social issues may be his biggest hurdle.” On the same day, The Star Ledger (Newark, NJ) ran a story about his announcement that only once briefly mentioned his Mormon faith and did not even address the challenge his faith would pose to voters. If there was any heavy scrutiny toward Romney’s religion on the day after he announced, it was more likely to be found in the pages of the international press than domestic (one notable exception being The New York Daily News, whose headline read “Romney Sez: Make Me 1st Mormon Prez”).
In choosing the Dearborn, MI, location for his announcement speech, flanked by his spouse and children, and in framing his candidacy as an entrepreneur seeking to change Washington politics, Romney was able to stave off the questions about his faith for the moment. But on February 15, 2007, the editorial pages began to sound off: Los Angeles Times writer Zev Chafets denounced anyone who would attack Romney on the basis of his religion: “His opponents need to make that case, however, without relying on spurious charges of bigotry by association or ugly whispers about his religious affiliation. That sort of thing was supposed to have been settled by the election of John F. Kennedy back in 1960.”
Robert Novak, while not the first journalist to discuss a Romney speech on faith akin to JFK’s 1960 address, did argue that it was wise for Romney to avoid such an address in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial on April 27, 2006: “Romney wisely has no intention of lecturing America on Mormon theology. Rather, he cites the 1838 speech in Springfield, Ill., by the young Abraham Lincoln, in which he said, “Let reverence for the laws . . . become the political religion of the nation.” In other words, religion should not make that much difference in America.” But Novak, in a prescient if ominous prediction, warned that Romney would be forced to give just such a speech down the road: “The intense reaction Romney will meet almost surely will require a stronger response than he now envisions. He has supporters who believe that he must go before the public and declare that the imposition of a religious test on U.S. politics is unfair, unreasonable and un-American.”
Days later (May 3, 2006), the Boston Herald printed a page-two article on a story first picked up by US News & World Report, “Mormon Mitt must faith facts; Eyes JFK-style speech on his religious beliefs.” In it, while not directly quoting Romney as saying he would have to give a speech, the story implies that on May 2—he made just such a statement. The US News article appeared in the May 8 edition, but was printed earlier and actually broke the story. Its author made the link to Kennedy in a not-so-subtle way: “Now, 46 years later, Massachusetts has coughed up another presidential hopeful who belongs to what some see as a weird religion—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And the candidate, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, plans to copy, almost exactly, JFK’s winning approach.” Both the Sun-Times and the US News & World Report stories appeared within days of each other, and were the first papers to report on a possible Kennedy-esque speech on religion. The Orlando Sentinel also picked up the story the next day, May 4.
Increasingly, the press began to speculate about Romney giving a Kennedy-style speech. The speculation was coupled with reports of Romney’s meetings with key evangelical representatives and other efforts to appease a critical group that could be skeptical of a Mormon in the White House (The Christian Science Monitor, January 22, 2007, The New York Times, February 8, 2007 and the Arizona Republic, February 28, 2007). The Christian Science Monitor’s January 22 edition asserted in an editorial that “Just as John Kennedy had to allay public fears of his relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, so Romney is being encouraged to give a speech about his relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” A tough analogy for any candidate to live up to, Kennedy’s 1960 speech had been held up as the gold standard—a brilliant piece of presidential campaigning that would be hard for anyone to eclipse. But clearly, by this time, the pressure was on for Romney to address the nation in a similar fashion.
By July, papers were quoting Romney directly on the possibility of such a speech. “I have thought about that,” Romney told the Associated Press on Thursday, July 26, 2007. “I haven’t made a final decision, but it’s probably more likely than not.” But over time, the media would report more frequently that “advisers” and “observers” were making the case that he should give such a speech. The Philadelphia Daily News editorialized that “strategists have reached for the obvious analogy. Romney, they say, should make a speech confronting the questions about his religion like the one Kennedy made to Baptist ministers in Houston soon after he won the Democratic nomination.” The same piece was one of the first to speculate on the crucial differences, though, between Kennedy’s speech and what Romney’s might look like: “If they (Romney’s advisers) were to read that speech again, they might reconsider. Kennedy arranged his talk around the rhetorical device of “the America I believe in,” but his America is substantially different from the one that Mitt Romney and his would-be constituency has been working to establish.”
Finally, after months of speculation and little direct confirmation by either Romney or his campaign, a story broke in The Boston Globe (February 27, 2007) after the paper obtained a 77-slide PowerPoint presentation prepared by his strategists. The presentation addressed how Romney’s Mormon faith could pose a problem for the campaign: “It (the presentation) also suggests Romney might soon need to address the issue head-on, perhaps as John F. Kennedy did in a 1960 speech amid concerns about his relationship to the Catholic Church” reported the Globe. The slideshow was dated from December 11, 2006. The Houston Chronicle picked up the story the following day, also mentioning the potential site for a potential speech, as did the Hartford Courant the following week, on March 4, 2007.
On October 4, 2007, evangelical leader James Dobson announced that he, along with a group of other prominent evangelicals, may resort to supporting a minor third-party candidate if the GOP failed to nominate one conservative enough. The Boston Globe, in a front-page article the following day, quoted Richard Land, who said he’d advised Romney in 2006 to give a JFK-style speech. “Land said he told Romney: “You can close that deal. You need to do what John Kennedy did, you need to defend the right to run.””
The calls for Romney to deliver a speech started to snowball, to the point where, in the following week, The Boston Globe reported on a National Journal survey of prominent Republicans, 59% of whom agreed that Romney should give a speech addressing his faith. By early November, the Los Angeles Times was reporting that “Romney has mused about making such a speech, and most analysts expect him to do so at some point.” Even so, Romney himself had meant it when he said he wasn’t decided on what to do. On Nov. 11, 2007, Newsday quoted Romney as saying “The political advisers tell me no, no, no—it’s not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone.” Back and forth it went, though, and like many other editorials, the Dallas Morning News on November 30, 2007 declared that it was “Time to Channel JFK: Romney would be wise to give speech on his faith.” Three days later, The Washington Post reported that the Romney campaign had officially decided he would give a speech entitled “Faith in America.” The article was a brief piece of straight reporting, appearing on Page 4. There were a number of news reports on December 3, 2008, about the Romney’s decision. From the statement prepared by his campaign, the speech would be framed as a defense of religious and civil liberty.
“This speech is an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation and how the governor’s own faith would inform his Presidency if he were elected,” according to the statement. “Governor Romney understands that faith is an important issue to many Americans, and he personally feels this moment is the right moment for him to share his views with the nation,” read the statement.
But regardless of how the campaign tried to frame the speech, the press already had their story, even before it was delivered. On December 4, 2007, The Globe ran a piece entitled “JFK’s words were a turning point,” that analyzed—from hindsight—the ways in which this was true, and applied the Kennedy principle to Romney.
By and large, the media viewed Romney’s timing as a response to his competitor Mike Huckabee’s rise in the polls, and the challenge he would face among evangelical voters in the upcoming Iowa caucuses. The Tampa Tribune on December 5, 2007, attributed the speech timing to Huckabee’s recent appeal among conservative voters. The Grand Rapids Press on December 3, 2007, did too: “The decision, made after months of debate at his Boston headquarters over whether to make a public address about his religion, comes as the former Massachusetts governor’s bid is threatened in Iowa by underdog Mike Huckabee. The ex-governor of Arkansas and one-time Southern Baptist minister has rallied influential Christian conservatives to erase Romney’s months-long lead and turn the race into a deadheat.” A poll released in The Des Moines Register also on the 3rd showed Huckabee surpassing Romney for the first time, and on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.
Some of the first news reporting following Romney’s December 6 speech was deeply sympathetic: “It’s hard not to be impressed with the speech former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney gave Thursday on faith and religion,” reported USA Today on December 7, 2007. Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald praised the speech in an analysis on the same day, “If giving the speech were like singing in a choir, then Romney hit all the right notes.” A few other outlets, including the New York Post (“Failed Bid to put the Religion Issue to Rest”) were not as kind. In the weeks that followed, some papers—especially in their op-ed pages—used the Kennedy comparison to critique Romney (see Maureen Dowd’s New York Times column, “Mitt’s no JFK”, from December 9, 2007).
While there was no consensus among the media on what Romney’s speech accomplished, in general, more questions were raised than were put to rest. On January 3, 2008, Huckabee won soundly in Iowa, a surprising victory that marked the beginning of the end for Romney, who exited the race in February. For Democrats, though, Iowa had its share of surprises as well, with Obama demonstrating that he was a strong competitor for the nomination even then.
As if to hand off the baton, a January 9, 2008 editorial in the New York Times entitled “A Tale of Two Speeches,” compared Obama’s post-Iowa victory speech with Romney’s speech in Texas the month before. “Obama’s, which (referenced race), was a success, while Romney’s was decidedly not,” wrote Tim Rutten. Within a few months, the attention would be placed on Obama again, also for a speech—one that would draw more attention to his faith, race and ethnicity than had occurred in the campaign to date.