Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Forgotten Catholic

By Mitchell

Most famously, there were the bookends from Massachusetts, John Kennedy and John Kerry; the former (according to some sources) a questionable Catholic, the latter perhaps even more so. Before them there was Al Smith, whose Catholicism nobody doubted (which might have cost him the Presidency). There was Ed Muskie and Tom Eagleton (for about ten minutes) and Sarge Shriver, and somewhere in there was Geraldine Ferraro, who was known more for her gender than her religion.

And then there was William E. Miller.

Bill Miller did an American Express card commercial once, one of the "Do you know me?" versions. He was a District Attorney and a U.S. Representative from New York State and a chairman of the Republican National Committee, and in the midst of all that, he somehow managed to squeeze in an appearance as Barry Goldwater's running mate on the 1964 Republican ticket - the first and only Catholic ever nominated for national office by the Republicans.

It is perhaps an indication of JFK's success at putting the religion issue to rest that only four years after his election, a Catholic could appear on a national party ticket without it becoming an issue. (It could also be a measure of the futility of Goldwater's campaign, the idea that it really didn't matter who ran with him.) Hubert Humphrey, who in 1960 benefitted from the anti-Catholic vote in West Virginia against Kennedy (which, it must be noted, he did nothing to encourage) in 1968 chose Edmund Muskie, a Catholic, as his running mate; in 1972 both of George McGovern's running mates - Tom Eagleton and Sargent Shriver - were Catholics. (It must have seemed for a while there as if the number-two post was becoming a designated "Catholic seat.")

According to Theodore White's Making of the President 1964, Miller wasn't Goldwater's first choice for running mate; Goldwater had actually planned to choose the moderate Bill Scranton, governor of Pennsylvania, before Nelson Rockefeller talked Scranton into opposing Goldwater for the nomination. Once Scranton's challenge had been beaten back, Barry turned to Miller, an astute debater with a sharp tongue, in hopes that he could serve as the stalking horse against LBJ in the fall campaign. It never happened, of course - LBJ played it cool, and Miller was too clean a campaigner to launch the personal attacks that might be seen today. His amiable manner won him friends on the campaign trail including the reporters who covered him, with whom he would play endless hands of bridge. (One story has it that a reporter asked Miller, who won consistently, if he would give the reporter a chance to regain his losses by betting on the outcome of the election; Miller was said to have replied that even he wasn't crazy enough to bet on the Republican ticket to win this one.)

Vice Presidential candidates seldom attract lasting fame, and when they do it's usually for the wrong reasons. (Eagleton, Dan Quayle, James Stockdale anyone?) Candidates from the losing ticket have even less chance of being remembered, and to that end William E. Miller's story isn't so uncommon.

But it's worth noting that he was one of only eight Catholics to ever be nominated for national office by a major party, and the only one of the eight from the Republican party. He appeared in a transitory period in American politics, when the issue of a candidate's religion was momentarily less of a factor. (We can thank Roe v. Wade for changing that.) But while the particular faith of many candidates has been forgotten, Bill Miller, who died in 1983, faded almost totally into the background.

At a time when the Catholicism of some of today's candidates is questioned, when the "struggle" between private faith and public policy is stark, it's not a bad idea to take a moment and remember the forgotten Catholic - a trailblazer in his own right, a man who still holds a singular distinction in his party, a man whose greatest pride, other than his family, was in being a graduate of Notre Dame. Not a bad life, one might say.

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