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Ken Hechler on JFK

Interview by John Lilly

Secretary of State Ken Hechler
Ken Hechler in 2000. Photograph by Michael Keller

West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler was a young U.S. Representative in the spring of 1960, running his first campaign for re-election. A bright and energetic Democrat from West Virginia, he provided local information and research materials to both John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey during their 1960 Democratic presidential primary campaigns. He also found himself caught up in the whirlwind of political activity and media attention which surrounded their do-or-die battle in the Mountain State. We spoke with Secretary Hechler recently about those days. — ed.

Ken Hechler. That was a very exciting time in West Virginia politics, and it resulted, I think, in the highest turnout of voters before or ever since.

John Lilly. Why do you think that was?

KH. Both Kennedy and Humphrey were very charismatic figures in a different way: Humphrey as a speaker, and Kennedy as a personality. They inspired a lot of young people to participate and take part in the political process. They don't have exciting role models today like they did in those days, or the kind of inspiration which was provided by both of those speakers.

I noticed one thing about Kennedy that really impressed me with his organization, as well as his personality. Whenever he'd be out shaking hands, he'd have a young lady with a stenographic notebook right with him. Just as soon as he shook hands with somebody, this young lady had that person's name and address and also some personal material. And within 24 hours, why, he or she would get a personally-autographed letter from Kennedy, which not only expressed pleasure at the opportunity of meeting that person, but also added enough personal material so that it made it much more than a form letter. This, of course, had a great impression.

Humphrey did not have the same kind of staff or the same kind of organization. I'll give you an illustration. I was serving in congress at that time, and I was so close to both Kennedy and Humphrey. Humphrey, as a matter of fact, had publicly endorsed me and written some letters on my behalf the first time I ran for congress in the primary, which was an unusual thing. And naturally, he sort of expected that I would do the same for him when he was in this tough primary. But, I told both Humphrey and Kennedy that I was going to help both of them with research materials, introduce them when needed, and give them both equal amounts of advice.

So one evening down in Beckley in Raleigh County, I had just attended a rally at the courthouse. Senator Kennedy said to me, "Now, I have an extra seat on the plane going back to Washington, if you'd like to ride back. I know you have to get back to congress tomorrow." So he said, "We're going to have a little meeting at 8:00 p.m. in the airport conference room in Beckley airport." And he said, "You're certainly welcome to come and attend that meeting, too." What impressed me about that meeting was that promptly — almost at the dot at 8:00 p.m. — into one door came Bob Kennedy, another door Ted Kennedy, another door Sargent Shriver. All the relatives and organizers came in. They had been in separate sections of the state. Without saying hello — they hadn't seen each other for quite a while — they started right off, "Well, here's what we need in Martinsburg. Here's what we need in Huntington. Here's what we need in Wheeling." It was almost like a well-oiled machine, like a well-rehearsed drama, the way that this unfolded. And there was very little argument. It was mainly presentation, what needed to be done specifically in terms of issues and personalities in each of these areas.

The very next night, I was with Humphrey in Boone County in Madison. As we were going up the elevator to the ballroom where Humphrey was to speak, he sort of plaintively turned to one of his aides, a fellow named Bob Barry. He said, "Bob, do we have a table for our literature up there?" And the sharp contrast between the organization and the support staff of the Kennedy campaign and the fact that Humphrey had to ask whether or not they had a table for the literature, it became apparent that Kennedy's organization was superior.

JL. So, did you remain an equal supporter of Kennedy and Humphrey throughout the campaign?

KH. Yes. Well, up until right near the end of the campaign. Why, I guess I was pretty much committed to Kennedy at that time. But I tried to keep as independent as possible. I did furnish both of them with a lot of research materials.

JL. Why do you think the campaign got so much national attention? I know that it was featured in all the biggest magazines and newspapers.

KH. I think the religious issue was the big thing, because many of the national media felt that since West Virginia was 95% Protestant, we would follow the practice that we had recorded in 1928 when we refused to back Alfred E. Smith, who was running for president, because of his Catholicism. Of course, there was a tremendous lot of personal difference between Al Smith and John F. Kennedy. John F. Kennedy looked like an average person, whereas Al Smith looked like an eastside New Yorker and spoke like an eastside New Yorker. Kennedy's Boston accent never seemed to hurt him here in West Virginia.

JL. Why do you think Kennedy's success here was so pivotal? It was just one of many primaries, and one in which there weren't a lot of delegates at stake.

KH. It was a religious issue.

JL. If he could win on the religious issue here, that would be seen as an harbinger of his future success?

KH. That's correct. The fact that so many people had predicted that he wouldn't win here, and he was able to beat the odds, that was sensational in terms of national exposure and national attention. A lot of people say that he bought the election, yet it was far more than money. It was his personality, charisma, organization, and focusing on the issues that really interested West Virginians.

JL. What were some of those issues? Do you recall?

KH. Minimum wage was certainly one and, of course, the whole issue of poverty and what could be done to bolster the economy. He put a lot of emphasis on jobs and the economy. But he talked mainly about leadership and the importance of leadership in the presidency — the same type of issues that had motivated Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and others down through the Democratic years. To get America moving again. This was a contrast with the relative inactivity of the Eisenhower administration preceding him.

JL. Is it fair to say that you were influenced by John Kennedy, that he was a big influence on you?

KH. Oh, clearly, he was a big influence on me, particularly in terms of his interest in young people and the way in which he was able to inspire and excite young people to take part in politics. That's always been part of my effort in politics is to try to ensure that high school and college students have an opportunity, and also to listen to their hopes and their dreams and their goals. Many politicians don't do this because of the fact that they figure young people don't vote in as large a percentage. I could never match the kind of charisma which Kennedy had, but I could certainly try to emulate his inspiration to young people.