from Eyewitness News Online
May 4,1960 - JFK Faces Humphrey In WV Primary Debate On WCHS
By Heath Harrison
November 17, 2013
This week, America marks 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This installment of “Remember When” is the first of two looking back at the president and his ties to West Virginia.
With its late primary date, West Virginia rarely gets to have much impact in the race to determine the presidential nominees. But in 1960, the state was crucial in determining the Democratic pick.
U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, was locked in a race that year against U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, of Minnesota, his chief opponent in the multi-candidate field seeking his party’s nomination.
Kennedy, a Catholic, faced concerns over his religion, as the nation had never elected a Catholic as chief executive. The issue was first raised by political observers following Kennedy’s victory in the April 5 Wisconsin primary, where Kennedy won the state’s Catholic counties, but lost all of the state’s Protestant counties to Humphrey, and only narrowly won the one which was evenly divided.
As the race moved into majority Protestant West Virginia, many felt that Kennedy would be a hard sell to the region and that the state could be a harbinger of the anti-Catholic bias he might face in a general election.
Humphrey, a populist firebrand, felt he could connect more with the state's working class voters than the wealthy Kennedy. He believed that if he could win in West Virginia, it could be a turning point in the race. While Humphrey did not raise the issue of Kennedy’s Catholic faith directly, he felt his Protestant background would be an asset in the state's contest.
Kennedy accepted Humphrey's challenge to debate, and the two Senate liberals set a date for what proved to be their only televised face-off.
Debates on television were a fairly new concept at the time. Other than a few events by the 1956 Democratic primary candidates, presidential hopefuls had yet to take advantage of what was still a young medium (WCHS itself had been on the air for only six years in 1960).
Taking place at the WCHS studio at 1101 Virginia Street E., and carried nationally by NBC, the debate was co-sposored with the Charleston Gazette and featured the two candidates before a panel consisting of the station’s news director Bill Ames, legendary Gazette publisher Ned Chilton and Dale Schussler of WTRF in Wheeling. Chilton served as moderator.
The event was more of a joint interview of the two candidates, rather than the back-and-forth exchanges contenders engage in today. The candidates touched on a number issues, including civil rights, the loss of coal jobs to mechanization of the industry, the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, as well as U.S. Cold War policy regarding the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.
The debate consisted of an opening statement from each candidate followed by a question and answer session and showcased the two candidates styles.
As former U.S. Rep. Ken Hechler recalled earlier this year, Kennedy demonstrated a much greater skill in his presentation, giving concise answers, compared to Humphrey, who had a reputation of being long-winded. Hechler said he was not initially impressed with Kennedy, but, upon seeing him in action in West Virginia, was won over and decided to support him.
The issue of Kennedy’s religion came up when Chilton read a submitted question asking the candidates what they thought of the Catholic Church’s attitude that Protestants should not be given equal status in countries where they are in the minority. Both candidates replied that they disagreed and stressed their commitment to the principal of separation of church and state. Chilton also asked the candidates their opinions on the prospect of an atheist or agnostic elected as president. Both Humphrey and Kennedy stressed that the U.S. Constitution states there should be no religious test for the office.
Kennedy was widely seen by political observers and as the winner of the debate and, shortly after, his financial and organizational advantage in West Virginia overwhelmed Humphrey. He went on to win the state’s primary in a 61 to 39 percent landslide and took 50 of 55 counties. Humphrey withdrew from the race that night, and Kennedy went on to win the nomination at his party's convention and defeat Republican Richard Nixon that fall.
- A copy of the program for the debate can be found on the WV Culture Center's webpage here.
- A photo of JFK, a young Edward Kennedy and WCHS president Hawthorne D. Battle outside of the studio can be seen here.
NEXT WEEK: We’ll have more on Kennedy’s campaign in the state in 1960, with a look at the efforts on the ground. Also, we'll show his return and final visit to Charleston three years later, as well as how WCHS covered the news of Nov. 22, 1963.
This week’s video, courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives at the Culture Center, is a highlight compilation of the WCHS debate, as it was presented on the Canadian public affairs series “Close-Up,” as part of their coverage of the U.S. presidential race. The cutaway to WCHS is about two minutes in. The discussion on religion starts at about the 9:50 mark.
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