“All my memories, gather ‘round her
Finest lady, stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Missed a taste of moonshine, teardrops in my eye”
--John Denver, "Country Roads" (1)
“As the song says, ‘Almost heaven,’ ‘Hillary said at her Charleston victory party, hailing herself as “the strongest candidate,” the one who can win swing states, and urging again that Michigan and Florida votes be counted.”’ (2)
It was a smashing victory, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percentage points with Barack winning only the Black vote. Comparing her mission in West Virginia to JFK’s campaign, Hillary told her audiences that, as in 1960, West Virginia would once again alter the political landscape. On its face, her overwhelming victory would have appeared to have done just that. But appearances can be deceiving.
The Clintons have been forced to retreat across the vast American political landscape, moving the electoral goalposts first from Texas to Ohio, then to Pennsylvania, and on to Indiana. We now find them holed up in the hardscrabble mountains of West Virginia, where she trumpeted yet another triumph in the hopes of convincing the remaining voters and superdelegates that she is best able to forge that coalition that will bring victory in the fall.
The lessons of the 1960 contest in West Virginia between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey are many and telling. From the perspective of the Kennedy campaign, the contest was a primer on the politics of tolerance. Kennedy went into the overwhelmingly protestant mountains of West Virginia and, with a little financial help from daddy, played the educator who, in the end, became the educated. Kennedy brought a message of optimism and hope, but foremost, he challenged the voters of West Virginia to demonstrate their tolerance. He campaigned on the assumption that the good people of the state would, after getting to know him, transcend their parochialism and vote for a Catholic candidate for President. The campaign also educated the candidate. Getting to know the good people of West Virginia, as Jay Rockefeller (now West Virginia’s junior Senator) would likewise do a generation later, Kennedy discovered the hardships of life in the old mining towns. For the first time he came face to face with those who work the black seam, the grimy faces, black lung disease, the danger, hardships, and the ever present specter of death hanging over those who toil in the bowels of the earth. Kennedy was given an abject lesson that chastened and humanized him. He encountered hardships he had only heretofore heard or read about, people and places that he would carry with him the rest of his short life. West Virginia held lessons that began to educate not only the emerging Democratic nominee, but the political elite and through them the rest of America. For the first time since the Great Depression, the established order confronted, head-on, the paradox that in the wealthiest nation on earth hard-working people, who labored long hours under dangerous and difficult conditions, would nevertheless be confined to a permanent condition of grinding hardship and poverty. JFK came to teach West Virginia about tolerance; West Virginia taught Kennedy lessons about hardship. Lessons that would lead, in time, to the Vista and Head Start programs and, later, become the underpinnings of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’
There were other lessons taught during that spring campaign so long ago. The West Virginia primary proved to be an experience altogether different for Senator Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey came to the state having lost in Wisconsin and needed to demonstrate that Kennedy could not win over protestant West Virginia. But out-spent and, more importantly, out-organized the Humphrey campaign was, in the end, reduced to a comedy of errors—demonstrating for all time what happens when one puts up ‘grocery money’ to run for President of the United States. Listen as Teddy White tells the story:
“I remember the final Saturday morning, shortly after it was revealed that Kennedy’s TV expenditures alone across the sate had mounted to $34,000. (a considerable sum at the time). Humphrey had had but four hours’ sleep that morning and was up at seven, prepared to barnstorm north from Charleston in his bus on a rainy morning, at that point one of his assistants informed him that the TV stations that had booked him for a Sunday night half hour were threatening to cancel unless they were paid that day, cash in advance for the time.
“It was one of the few times I have seen the temper of that genial man snap”“’Pay it!” snarled Humphrey, “Pay it! I don’t care how, don't come to me with that kind of story! ‘then, realizing that his crestfallen aide was, like himself, destitute, Hubert pulled out his checkbook at the breakfast table and said, “All right, I’ll pay for it myself,” and scribbled a personal check of his own
“Mrs. Humphrey watched him do so, with dark, sad eyes, and one had the feeling that the check was money from the family grocery fund…My memory tells me that the sum of that check was $750.—not a particularly large sum for a statewide hookup of half and hour. But such a grocery-money check buys time only—it does not buy the production, the preparation, the care a major television manipulation of the public requires.
“What happens when a man goes on cold on TV in politics with such a grocery-money investment was grotesquely shown by Humphrey’s final appeal to the voters of West Virginia on that day before the election. From somewhere he had raised another $750 for another half-hour of TV time, and now (like Richard Nixon much later in the year) he was prepared to save all with a telethon. A telethon is a political gimmick in which a candidate, theoretically but not actually, throws himself open to any and all questions from any voter who cares to call the broadcasting station. A good telethon requires good staff in order to screen questions and artfully sequence them so they give the illusion of spontaneity yet feed the candidate those pretexts on which he can masterfully develop his themes. It is commonly one of the most spurious and obnoxious devices in modern political gimmickry.
“What happens when such a telethon is authentic—not spurious—Humphrey demonstrated with is modest $750.00 Investment on that Monday. For when authentic, unscreened questions are fed to the candidate the effect is comic. Except that, watching Hubert Humphrey fight his last national battle with family grocery money, the effect was more sad than comic.
“The telethon opened with Humphrey sitting alone at a desk; before him was a manual telephone with switch buttons for two lines, which he was supposed to punch alternately as questioners telephoned in. The viewing audience was to hear both unscreened question and answer over the TV set.
“The first question was a normal mechanical question: ‘What makes you think you’re qualified to be President, Senator Humphrey?’ so was the second question ‘Can you be nominated, Mr. Humphrey?
“Then came a rasping voice over the telephone, the whining scratch of an elderly lady somewhere high in the hills, and one could see Humphrey flinch (as the viewers flinched); and the rasp said, ‘you git out! You git out of West Virginia Mr. Humphrey!’ Humphrey attempted to fluster a reply and the voice overrode him, ‘You git out, you hear! You can’t stand the Republicans gitting ahead of you! Why don’t you git out!’
“Humphrey had barely recovered from the blast before the next call came: what would he do about small-arms licensing for people who like to hunt? Then, what would he do about social security? None of the questions were hitting anywhere near the target area of Humphrey’s campaign program, and then a sweet womanly voice began to drawl on the open switch, ‘How about those poor little neglected children, Mr. Humphrey, I mean how can we lower taxes like you say and take care of all those little children who need more schools, and more hospitals, and more everything…’ On and on she went, sweetly, as Humphrey (his precious, costly minutes oozing by) attempted to break in and say that he, too, was for the poor little neglected children.
“By now the telethon was becoming quite a family affair, and the next voice was a fine mountain voice, easy, slow, gentle with West Virginia courtesy, and it said, ‘Senator Humphrey, I just want you to know that I want to apologize for that lady who told you to git out. We don’t feel like that down here in West Virginia, Senator Humphrey, and I’m very sorry that she said that…” He would have rambled on and on, but Humphrey, desperate, expressed quick thanks and pressed the other button.
“He had barely begun to answer the question when a clipped voice interrupted on the party line of the caller, ‘Clear the wires, please, clear the wires, this is an emergency!’ Humphrey attempted to explain that they were on the air, they were answering questions to a TV audience. ‘Clear the wires, clear the wires at once, this is an emergency,’ repeated the operator on the party line that straggled down some unknown West Virginia hill on which, perhaps, someone was trying to summon a doctor; and Humphrey, his face blank and bedazzled, hung up, shaken, to press the button for another call (a gruff voice, with a thick accent, asking what he and Kennedy were going to do for the coal operators, they’d only been talking about the miners up to now, not the operators). From that point on the telethon lost all cohesion—proving nothing except that TV is no medium for a poor man.” (3)
This is what can happen when a campaign gets desperate. Things can quickly degenerate into a comedy of errors; things can also get very ugly.
Hillary went into West Virginia, imploring the good citizens to — in the words of George Wallace — ‘send ‘em a message.’ Highlighting her support among ‘hardworking voters, hardworking white voters,’ the Clinton campaign once again reverted back to playing the race card. The result was wholly predictable “Two in 10 white voters said race was important in how they voted, and more than 8 of 10 of these went for Hillary.” (2) It was a route, a victory sullied by race-baiting.
The Clinton camp was quick to pounce on the emerging numbers. Spokesman Howard Wolfson said “I’m a little concerned about the fact that our nominee, presumptive nominee, can’t win West Virginia. I’m a little concerned that he can’t win Pennsylvania or Ohio, or Michigan or Florida.” “Put your brains back in your head,” an Obama spokesman retorted. “In national polls, we win every income group against John McCain except those people making $100,000-plus, where we lose by one point, which is a tie. Among white, non-college voters, McCain leads Obama 52-40 and he leads Clinton 52-44. A four point difference between us and Clinton, well within the margin of error. Overall in head-to-head matchups, we are beating McCain by more than she is. And, most importantly, we are winning independents 51-42 against McCain, and Clinton loses independents 49-46…” (4)
There were other results this primary evening that received almost no coverage. While Hillary was trouncing Barack in West Virginia, Obama was besting her 49-46% in Nebraska where, if similar analysis were applied, would reveal much different levels of support among the various socio-economic groups. The primary in Nebraska was a ‘beauty contest,’ a basically meaningless election since the delegates were chosen at caucus earlier in the year. Nevertheless, Obama won this predominately white state both at caucus and in a general primary.
None of this matters. By ‘winning ugly,’ Hillary has succeeded in doing what everyone long thought was impossible, driving up her negatives to even higher levels and losing the nomination by so doing. Roger Simon, writing for Politico.com, was moved to ask: “Hillary Wins—Does Anybody Care?" Since her victory last week in Indiana, Obama has picked up 27 superdelegates to Clinton’s one and a half (4), the answer is a resounding, "NO!" Perhaps if her party line, leading down some long craggy West Virginia hill, led to what unites rather than what divides us; perhaps if her party line had led to comic relief instead of bitterness; perhaps if her party line had led to acts of inspiration instead of acts of desperation, things might have been different. Her campaign in West Virginia invokes not the memory of our beloved JFK, nor does it bring a smile of fond remembrance for our ‘happy warrior,’ Hubert. Instead, the Clintons gave us a modern version of the snarling George C. Wallace, a man whose politics never captured the soul of the Democratic Party or the nation.
3. White, Theodore H., “The Making of the President 1960” New York
Pocket Books, Inc., Atheneum House, Inc., 1961. pp. 131-134.