Tilting at Windmills

March/April 2012 Did the Kennedys buy West Virginia?

By Charles Peters

In defense of my home state, I should explain that not every election can be bought. Electoral hanky-panky flourishes when voters are indifferent, not when they care. And even the most well-heeled candidate does not always win. Consider that when Jay Rockefeller, who was not exactly underfunded, first ran for governor he was soundly defeated because he had opposed strip mining and thereby aroused the anger not only of the strip mine owners, but all the workers who saw their jobs at risk.

In 1960, the Kennedys did offer extraordinarily generous contributions to the local organizations whose support they sought. One county leader, when asked by a Kennedy man how much his organization needed, answered “35” by which he meant $3,500. A few days later he was handed a briefcase with $35,000. He later confided, however, that he would have had to be for Kennedy anyway because his wife and daughter would have disowned him if he hadn’t. People like his wife and daughter had seen their concerns about Kennedy’s Catholicism overcome by the story of his wartime heroism, his endorsement by Franklin Roosevelt Jr., whose father they still worshipped, and the personal magnetism radiated by the candidate as he campaigned all over the state. As one who was there, I remain amazed at how the crowds grew in size and in enthusiasm from the first day to May 10th, when Kennedy won by a far greater margin than money possibly could have bought.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.