March 17, 2004,
On this Saint Patrick's Day, I plan to raise a pint of Beamish to my favorite Irish American: Soledad O'Brien.
CNN's O'Brien has previously been named to Irish American magazine's "Top 100 Irish Americans" list. Interestingly, she also received the "Hispanic Achievement Award in Communications" and she's a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, too.
One can only imagine what St. Patrick's Day is like around her house.
Given examples like Ms. O'Brien, it's hardly surprising that John Kerry of Boston, Mass. has a less-than-linear lineage of his own. While Massachusetts voters have long assumed that Kerry was a good Irish name, their junior senator is actually no more Irish than Shaquille O'Neal. Perhaps even less.
It turns out that the question "Has John Kerry ever been Irish?" is as hard to answer as "Has Kerry been endorsed by the president of Ireland?" Here's what we know:
1) John Kerry is not Irish. As has been widely reported, John Kerry's grandfather, the devout Catholic Franklin Kerry, grew up in central Europe as the Jewish Fritz Kohn, changing his name before immigrating to the U.S. in 1905. Kerry's mother is part of a wealthy Massachusetts family that traces its English roots back to the founding of the Bay State (marrying wealth seems to be a tradition among the Kerry men).
2) For years, Massachusetts's Irish voters assumed Kerry was one of their own. As longtime state Senate President William M. Bulger used to say on St. Patrick's Day, "Kerry's only Irish every sixth year." The Boston Globe and other media outlets regularly misidentified Kerry as at least part Irish throughout most of Kerry's political career, a mistake that clearly helped Kerry as a candidate. In fact, Mike Gilleran, the former deputy chief of the Massachusetts Republican party, says "If it were understood by the population that he was not Irish, he would never have risen in Massachusetts politics."
3) John Kerry has sometimes corrected media reports that he was Irish, but he has generated some, too. As Slate, the Boston Globe, and others have reported, Kerry is on record at least twice as maintaining his Celtic roots.
In a draft of prepared remarks reported in the Boston Globe, Kerry told a group in 1984: "As some of you may know, I am part-English and part-Irish. And when my Kerry ancestors first came over to Massachusetts from the old country to find work in the New World, it was my English ancestors who refused to hire them."
Then in 1986 on the floor of the Senate, John Kerry said, "For those of us who are fortunate to share an Irish ancestry, we take great pride in the contributions that Irish-Americans ..."
It's interesting that each of these events occurred relatively early in Kerry's career, at a time when ethnic voting patterns would be the most important to a candidate. It's also interesting that, in classic Kerry fashion, the senator claims they never happened.
His spokesperson says the quote from the Senate floor was in a written statement submitted for the record by a Kerry staffer but never read by Kerry. Kerry's staff also claims that Kerry rejected the "Luck O' the Irish" speech in 1984 as well. Gee, what a coincidence.
It also seems an odd coincidence that at least two of Kerry's staffers thought he was Irish, probably a good indicator of just how hard the senator was working to set the record straight. And not a single attendee of the traditional Southie's St. Patrick's Day political breakfast has yet to mention the year Kerry announced he was not part of the Celtic clan.
In a state where ethnic politics is key, such an overt admission could hardly be considered a winning strategy. And the evidence that Kerry pushed the false impression he was Irish is thin. Then again, so is any evidence that John Kerry has a coherent foreign policy, so perhaps that's just part of the Kerry English/Austrian/Jewish/French/African-American charm.
But today is St. Patrick's Day, and like they say at Kelly's pub, everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's Day. Even John Kerry.
Radio-talk-host Michael Graham covers southern politics from his home in Virginia. He is an NRO contributor.