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Charleston Gazette-Mail
May 15, 1960

Have We Picked Next President?

Illogical, Yes, But Kennedy’s Win Seen Vital Push to Nomination

By Don Marsh

For the first time in its history, West Virginia may be the decisive influence in choosing a President of the United States.

The conclusion is as inevitable as it is curious. It lacks form or logic and it took the combination of a remarkable young man and remarkably confusing ground rule to make it possible.

The remarkable young man is John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The confusing rule is whether his impressive primary victory over Sen. Humphrey negated the political axiom that a Catholic candidate can not win a national office.

In large part, the rule was made elsewhere, presumably by writers for national publications. Its essence was that West Virginia, with a population overwhelmingly Protestant, was a hotbed of bigotry. If Kennedy could carry it, he could demonstrate that his Catholicism was no bar to his ambition.

Now that the election is over, and Kennedy is the decisive winner, many of the newspapers which advocated the proposition are beginning to have serious doubts about its accuracy.

They have concluded as unanimously after the election that bigotry was exaggerated here as they concluded before the election that it was the most important issue.

“One of the first things that ought to be written about the West Virginia primary is an apology to the people of West Virginia,” said the Wall Street Journal.

“West Virginia voters have dramatically buried the widespread assumption that religious bigotry would be a dominant factor in the selection of a presidential candidate,” said the Washington Post and Times-Herald.

“. . . The vote showed that the ‘religion issue’ no longer is a decisive consideration in American politics—if it ever was,” said the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“The cynics made Sen. Kennedy an underdog solely because of his religion. West Virginians proved them wrong—and thereby did both their state and their nation a tremendous favor,” said the Buffalo Evening News.

“It shows that the anti-Catholic prejudice, reported adnauseam [sic], as the most distinguishing mark of West Virginia has been grossly exaggerated,” said the New York Times.

Despite this sudden reversal, this reappraisal of what West Virginia really meant, the editorial writers agree that Kennedy’s showing gave him tremendous impetus toward the nomination.

“It catapulted him suddenly into the heaviest of favorites,” said the Chattanooga Times.

“. . . a Kennedy victory of such proportions that the senator’s assertion he would eventually be the nominee was immediately accepted by some observers,” said the Christian Science Monitor.

“His astonishing victory has given him a commanding lead,” said the St. Louis Times Dispatch.

“. . . It puts him nicely in front,” said the Milwaukee Journal.

This puzzling situation is causing some second thoughts. On one hand, the experts seem to be saying that religion wasn’t important in West Virginia because the state has no bigots.

On the other hand, they seem to be saying he can win because the religious question has been answered once and for all.

The confusion, if there is any, seems to boil down to the difference between honest inquiry and emotional prejudice.

At least, that’s the conclusion of the Wall Street Journal. It focused on the apparent contradiction and concluded that voters here did, indeed, examine religious qualifications.

“(They) looked it over and decided . . . it was merely one more thing to be put in the scale to decide whether they liked Mr. Kennedy better than Mr. Humphrey . . .” the Journal decided.

Still, if bigotry wasn’t deeply involved, why did winning a popularity contest enormously increase Kennedy’s chances for the nomination?

The New York Times wondered. After observing that pundits were saying before the election that while winning here didn’t guarantee him the nomination, defeat almost surely eliminated him from consideration, the Times said that:

“If this observation was accurate, as we believe it was, it is simply one more commentary on the absurdity of the American primary system.

“Why should the fate of any candidate, least of all so able and attractive a candidate as Mr. Kennedy, depend in the last analysis on a few score thousand voters in one state that is typical of nothing but itself?

“West Virginia has special economic problems all its own, a population make-up uncharacteristic of much of tthe [sic] country, an interesting if unique political tradition. It is unreasonable that a Kennedy defeat in West Virginia should have defeated Kennedy, or that a Kennedy victory in West Virginia should have nominated him.”

It does seem an unreasonable situation and perhaps it is. But, again, there may be at least a partial explanation.

What West Virginia may have answered, suggested Arthur Krock, the Time’s distinguished columnist, is that voters’ reservations may be resolved by clear answers.

Krock thinks that there was a legitimate, not a religious issue, involved in discussing the political implications of the separation of church and state.

“This issue, evoked by the international structure of the Catholic heirarchy [sic], and absolute dogmatic power of the papacy, Kennedy dispelled by convincing the people that neither would sway him in the execution of his oath of office,” Krock wrote.

Sen. Kennedy agreed. “Ordinarily, I think where a citizen goes to church on Sunday is his business,” he said during the campaign, “but where a President goes to church is everybody’s business.”

In a television debate, he went further than Humphrey who said the only religious qualification that should be considered is whether a candidate had any religion at all.

Kennedy said he didn’t agree. All that was needed, he added, was a belief in constitutional principles, implying, at least, that an atheist shouldn’t be discriminated against at the polls.

In another television interview, he said emphatically that: “As President, I would not allow myself to be dictated to by the Pope or anyone else, and any President who would should be impeached.”

Editorially, the Times said Protestant West Virginians had shown they would vote for a qualified Catholic, and went a step further saying: “It would be a source of equal satisfaction if it could also be proved that a Catholic presidential candidate would not automatically gain in Catholic areas because he is a Catholic.”

As one who traveled with Sen. Kennedy during the final two weeks of his campaign, I found his victory surprising only by its decisiveness.

Essentially, in retrospect, it was earned by his superlative ability to project himself. West Virginians, especially those in depressed areas, feel a deep desire for a change.

Kennedy, young, handsome, dynamic, convinced them that he was the man who sincerely desired to help them.

Religion was important and could have been decisive. Kennedy met it head on, stating his position so clearly, so unequivocably, that to doubt his sincerity was to doubt him and everything he said he stood for.

His organization and his financing were also important. Kennedy said he spent between $40,000 and $50,000 for radio, newspaper and television advertising. Later, in Washington, he said his total expenses were something like $70,000.

But that applies, presumably, only to money handled by his campaign headquarters. Counting contributions by various allied groups and others which were not counted (the use of his private airplane for example) the total must have been much higher.

Another aid was the tireless and efficient men who worked with him. Not only his relatives, his Washington staff, his supporters in the state, but his friends from throughout the country rallied to his support.

On one of his trips through southern West Virginia, I met the mayor of Gloucester, Mass., a real estate dealer from Florida and a businessman from California, all working for Kennedy. The staff was the most cosmopolitan in West Virginia history.

Again, in retrospect, it is hard to believe that Sen. Humphrey could have been favored to beat him, although I think Kennedy thought himself he was going to lose.

But how? Humphrey was still reeling from Wisconsin: his financing was paltry; his workers, not counting his senatorial staff, were devoted but inexperienced. What chance did he have? The national writers assumed that prejudice would elect min. The feeling was so pronounced that they started asking, jokingly: “Are you for Kennedy or are you a bigot?”

To repeat, I believe that Kennedy thought he was going to lose. So it is no reflection on him to say that it might be symbolic of his appeal that in spite of having so many advantages on his side, he went into the election as an underdog.

It is still a long way to the Democratic convention. Kennedy may yet stumble. If he doesn’t, he still has to beat a formidable opponent for the presidency. But at this point, he has excellent prospects of being the next occupant of the White House.

If he is, despite confusion about “why” or “how”, West Virginians can honestly say that it was they who put him there.


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