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Kennedy Visit During 1960 Primary Election In W.Va. Changed Politics

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The 1960 Democratic Presidential Primary between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey was a watershed event in American politics.

Kennedy was the first, and so far only, Catholic president of the United States. He credited West Virginia, which is largely Protestant, for making it happen.

Author and West Virginia Wesleyan College Professor Robert Rupp explored this issue in his new book “The Primary That Made a President: John F. Kennedy and West Virginia.”

He spoke with Eric Douglas via Zoom.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Why did you feel now was the time to delve into this story?

Rupp: I think it's a story that hasn't been told. This is the first book by a historian who has looked at that primary. It has become very influential. Kennedy and his advisors admitted that he had to win West Virginia otherwise, he probably wouldn't have gotten the nomination and there would have been no Kennedy administration.

Douglas: The other big issue, or the supposed big issue, was Kennedy's Catholicism. And he took it head on in the campaign. He didn't sit back and wait for people to question him about it. He addressed it up front and repeatedly.

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Professor Robert Rupp

Rupp: But the interesting thing is, before West Virginia, he didn't use a confrontational strategy. He would wait until someone in the audience would ask him a question. In West Virginia, out of desperation, he addressed it straight on.

Douglas: What can we learn from that today? Obviously, one of the two candidates for president right now, 60 years later, if elected, will be only the second Catholic elected to the office. Is that even a discussion today?

Rupp: Well, let's go back to 1960. In 1960, if you were talking about the United States presidency, and who was going to be in the White House. It had to be a white adult, male Protestant. And so Kennedy had to challenge that. Even as late as 1959, almost 20 percent of Americans said they would never vote for a Catholic for president, even if that person was qualified.

What Kennedy did is he challenged that. He told America to open that door. And over the last 60 years, we've seen that door open sometimes. But as you said, the irony is Kennedy was the first, and so far the only Catholic who has been elected president. But at least he tore down that barrier.

Douglas: Today, I don't even know that we stopped to consider that Joe Biden is Catholic. It's not something that I think most people anyway even stop to consider.

Rupp: If we're looking for encouraging news, what was part of American presidential politics in 1960, as you said, is not part of it now in 2020. We're not considering it was an obstacle.

Douglas: What did West Virginia gain from the Kennedy primary? I mean, other than some national attention, both good and ill?

Rupp: Kennedy recognized that he owed a debt to West Virginia. No. 1. No. 2 this a person (Kennedy) who barely ever saw poverty before. And according to the stories and interviews, his time in West Virginia educated him about poverty. And the result is, during his administration, he was the best thing that ever happened to West Virginia in terms of funneling projects and money to help the state. We're talking about I-79, we're talking about road-building, we're talking about the food stamp program.

Douglas: There was a huge discrepancy between the amount of money that Kennedy spent versus the amount of money that Humphrey spent, and that seems to have affected campaigns moving forward as well.

Rupp: The Kennedy campaign in the West Virginia primary contest forecast many of the features that we associate with presidential campaigns today. And probably one of the most disturbing was the amount of money spent. It's estimated that the Kennedy campaign spent more than a $1 million dollars on this primary and Humphrey barely had a 10th of that.

This allowed Kennedy to outspend Humphrey. Humphrey had no TV ads. Kennedy had TV ads all over the place. Humphrey had virtually no organization, Kennedy set up organization in 35 counties and was fully staffed. Kennedy sent out 100,000 mailers or letters.

So yeah, one of the downsides, when it comes to the future of American politics, was the huge amount of money spent in this small state primary. It really forecast what was going to happen in the rest of the century and now.

This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.


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