In 1960, West Virginia Led to the White House
NOAH ADAMS, Host:
Fifty years ago the Roman Catholic faith was supposed to have been an issue for the mostly protestant voters of West Virginia. It was the 1960 primary in that state, Hubert Humphrey against John F. Kennedy. The night of Election Day after the voting, Humphrey said he was no longer running for president. Kennedy had taken 60 percent of the vote.
Robert Rupp teaches political science at West Virginia, Wesleyan. And Professor Rupp, we're calling you up on another primary day to talk about the time when West Virginia was extremely significant in a race, half a century ago.
ROBERT RUPP: Right. They call this a primary that made a president, because remember, the biggest liability against Kennedy was not his youth or his experience. It was the fact that he was of the Catholic faith, which was considered making a candidate unelectable.
ADAMS: Making a candidate unelectable. And he addressed the issue head on. Here's some tape from that campaign, just a bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
JOHN F: Now, there is nothing in my religious faith which prevents me from executing my oath of office. If I thought that there was, I wouldn't take it. If I though there was, I shouldn't be not a president; I shouldn't be senator; I shouldn't have been congressman. To be frank with you, I shouldn't have been taken into the service of the United States.
ADAMS: You know, looking back, it's kind of funny, Professor Rupp.
RUPP: My students cannot understand the degree of anti-Catholic feeling in 1960, but there were many Americans that were very concerned that a Catholic president would take orders from the pope. And Kennedy in Wisconsin, he avoided the issue, but the press said he only won in Wisconsin because of Catholic Republicans voted for him. So he comes to the state with only five percent Catholic, wins in a landslide, and he does it by adopting a confrontation strategy.
In the middle of the campaign, they said you're losing, everyone's thinking this issue, so he brought it out. And he said, there are other reasons to vote against me, how dare you deny me on the basis of my faith because 40 million other people shouldn't lose the right to run for president on the day that they were baptized.
ADAMS: Looking back through the articles, the writing about this campaign, I see one thing, one name that stands out. Ken Kurtz was a political reporter for a television station in the state, and he said they assumed we were ignorant hillbillies and prejudiced Protestants. The people of West Virginia, it almost seems, were trying to send a message, to say we're not prejudiced and we can elect John Kennedy.
RUPP: Yes. And in the end it almost turned a liability into an asset, because the only way we could prove we weren't bigots is to vote for this Catholic. And Ken was right; the press would go out and try to find a bigot in the audience, and he seemed to always be quoted in national media, one of those, rather than asking an important issues of food and family and military service.
All those other identifications could be applied to John Kennedy. And when they were, Kennedy was the second FDR. And when you start talking about him as FDR, you stop talking about him as a Catholic.
ADAMS: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. in fact came to that state and that was a magic name.
RUPP: It was magic. In an Appalachian culture, Noah, we want face to face. So first of all, Kennedy came. Second of all, we want someone to introduce this outsider, and what better person to do would be FDR, Jr., who basically said, if my father were alive today, he would support Jack Kennedy.
ADAMS: So when the day was over, he, Kennedy, carried 50 out of the 55 counties in West Virginia.
RUPP: Many people had thought it was close, and there wasn't really any advanced polling. Kennedy actually left the state on Election Day and only had to return when the returns were in. But right, Noah, it was overwhelming landslide across the state. And as Kennedy himself said, West Virginia buried the religious issue.
ADAMS: Robert Rupp of West Virginia Wesleyan College. Thank you, Professor Rupp.
RUPP: Thank you.
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