May 10 brings the 50th anniversary of a West Virginia event that changed American history. The Mountain State's legendary 1960 primary election clinched the Democratic presidential nomination for John F. Kennedy and carried him into the White House.
To mark the golden anniversary, aging veterans of that clash will hold an all-day Charleston program, mostly at the Culture Center. I'm to be among panelists. Another all-day ceremony is set for Logan, which was a 1960 political battleground.
Most historians assert that the famed West Virginia primary was a cultural landmark because it showed that mountain Protestants weren't too prejudiced to vote for a Roman Catholic, and thus America gained its first Catholic president. That's true, of course.
Actually, I don't remember much anti-Catholic hostility among Kanawha Valley folks during the historic campaign. The worst prejudice came in vicious pamphlets sent into the state by national demagogues like evangelist Carl McIntire, a big Catholic-hater in those days.
Some observers think Kennedy deliberately spotlighted the religious issue, to nudge West Virginians to show they weren't prejudiced by supporting him. It conveyed an insidious message: Anyone backing his challenger, Hubert Humphrey, did so out of bigotry.
In the end, poor Humphrey was outclassed, outgunned, outspent, outmaneuvered -- and lost the Mountain State so badly that he quit the presidential race. Kennedy seized the Democratic nomination and narrowly defeated Republican Richard Nixon for the presidency.
Personally, my foremost memory of those times involves disgusting corruption that tainted West Virginia politics back then, chiefly in southern coal counties.
Jack Kennedy hardly needed help from political crooks. He was an ideal candidate: handsome, youthful, witty, popular, a war hero with a gorgeous wife and a rich father who bankrolled him lavishly. His wealthy and glamorous relatives campaigned with him, covering West Virginia like an exuberant team. Kennedy's sparkling charisma made Democratic rival Humphrey seem drab. Humphrey was mostly alone, except for his wife.
JFK probably could have won the West Virginia showdown, purely on his personal appeal. But plenty of sleaze was committed on his behalf. Large bags of Kennedy cash were funneled to scummy courthouse kingpins in the coalfields, who listed Kennedy atop their "slates" of chosen candidates and used his father's money to buy votes. Here's the record:
On the day after the 1960 primary, the Logan Banner said the election was a spree of "flagrant vote-buying, whiskey flowing like water, and coercion of voters.... You name it and we just about had it."
Logan political boss Raymond Chafin wrote in his autobiography, Just Good Politics, that Humphrey agents first gave him $2,500 for slate access -- but Kennedy agents offered more. When they asked how much money would be required, Chafin told them "about 35," meaning $3,500. But the JFK agents misunderstood and sent him two suitcases containing $35,000. Chafin was flabbergasted. His sidekick, Bus Perry, panicked and blurted: "I've already been in the penitentiary once. I'm not going back."
Chafin said he calmed Perry and phoned Kennedy headquarters to report the error, but was told to put the cash to good use. He put it to bad use.
Another Logan boss, Claude "Big Daddy" Ellis, claimed that the Kennedy camp sent him more than $50,000, which went for "sawbucks and half-pints," the standard payoff to voters who let precinct workers "assist" them in choosing the designated slate. Ellis quipped that JFK didn't "buy West Virginia; he just rented it for a day."
Various national newspapers and magazines wrote about West Virginia's corruption in 1960. Life described coal-county "lever brothers" (a takeoff on Lever Brothers soap products), dishonest precinct workers who flipped levers of old-style voting machines for bribed voters.