"Votes are bought in every West Virginia election," former legislator Charlie Peters told USA Today. As Kennedy's Kanawha County chairman in 1960, he said Election Day payola was "like the old moonshining tradition." Peters, who later was a Peace Corps chief and founded Washington Monthly magazine, is scheduled to appear in the all-day May 10 anniversary. Recently, Peters wrote that corruption reports about that era have been overblown.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the President, 1960 Theodore White called Mountain State politics "the most squalid, corrupt and despicable" in America. "Politics in West Virginia involves money -- hot money, under-the-table money, open money."
Kennedy's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, later head of the Peace Corps, recalled sarcastically: "We played the West Virginia game by the West Virginia rules." All these allegations were compiled by state Supreme Court law clerk Allen Loughry in his 2006 book, Don't Buy Another Vote. I Won't Pay for a Landslide. The title refers to a joke by JFK, supposedly quoting a note from his father during the Mountain State primary.Even worse, the Mafia reportedly joined the campaign. Pulitzer Prize-winner Seymour Hersh -- who spoke in Charleston in 2005 at the Gazette-WVU Festival of Ideas -- wrote a book titled The Dark Side of Camelot
, contending that JFK's father got rich from bootlegging in the Depression, which gave him mob connections. Hersh said the father paid mob leaders to help his son in West Virginia, mostly in the Northern Panhandle and with unions like the Teamsters, then Mafia-dominated.Hersh alleged that Judith Exner, one of JFK's many lovers, also was a girlfriend of Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana. The woman claimed that Kennedy gave her bags of money to carry to Giancana during the West Virginia struggle. Former Gazette
Editor Don Marsh scoffed at the Hersh allegation.
In his book about West Virginia politics, Afflict the Comfortable, former Gazette writer Thomas Stafford said ex-editor Harry Hoffmann, a fellow Catholic, refused to believe that Kennedy's forces bought the 1960 primary. However, Stafford wrote that the newspaper's late publisher, W.E. "Ned" Chilton III, "settled the issue in his own blunt fashion" by declaring that Kennedy "bought a landslide, not an election."
At the peak of the campaign, Chilton helped lead a televised Kennedy-Humphrey debate, a forerunner of such face-offs that later become standard in elections.
I wasn't a political writer in 1960, so I covered fringe events -- such as TV newsman David Brinkley visiting a dilapidated Lincoln County bridge to spotlight poverty and decrepitude in the hills. I attended a Lincoln stop in which gubernatorial candidate Wally Barron delivered a rouser speech about flag-saluting. He spoke from the back of a flatbed truck whose mudflaps said "Jesus Saves." Barron was strong for patriotism and religion, until he and most of his Statehouse chiefs went to prison.
One news photo from the campaign featured JFK petting my bandaged dog. My late wife had taken the injured pooch to a roadside campaign stop, and Kennedy paused to comfort the mutt, while cameramen snapped.
Poverty was horrendous in West Virginia in 1960, because coal mechanization in the 1950s had wiped out tens of thousands of miner jobs. The hardship made a gripping impression on JFK. After entering the White House, he showered help on the region through public works projects, food stamps, job training, Appalachian Corridor construction -- and even providing electricity to remote sectors.
The world of 1960 no longer exists. Blatant vote-buying in southern coal counties is diminished today, thanks to many federal busts and passage of election cleanup laws. Political kingpins of the bad old days have faded and died.
But history is eternally fascinating. May 10 will be a special time to look back on the day when West Virginia changed America's destiny.
Haught, the Gazette's editor, may be reached by phone at 348-5199 or e-mail at hau...@wvgazette.com.