I don't think JFK walked on water, but I also believe the world was lucky the lowly PT Boat Lieutenant was there to call Air Force General Curtis LeMay's bluff in October of 1962, else the world would have faced Armageddon over the Cuban Missile Crises. But speaking politcally, it was also true that John Fitzgerald Kennedy played a crucial role in the formation of two American political myths. On the Democratic side, there is the myth of Camelot. And on the Republican side there is the myth of the bought election. To put it bluntly, J.F. K. did not steal the Presidental election of 1960 – no way, nadda, never happened.
The foundation of the “bought election” is the autobiography “Just Good Politics, the Life of Raymond Chafin, Appalachian Boss”, published in 1994 (but the story had been around for 30 years beforet that). In 1960 Chafin was Chairman of the Logan county (West Virginia) Democratic Party Executive Committee, and working for Presidential candidate Hurbert Humphrey. Chafin's story, as described by reviewer Joe Savage in the December 1994 Washington Monthly, was that Chafin “received $35,000 cash in two briefcases at the Logan County airport from Kennedy operatives the week before the primary. While he says the amount was "a mistake"--he'd only asked for $3,500--Chafin reassures his readers that he spent it all on election activity, including illegal vote-buying, and did not pocket any of the cash himself.” But the only way to believe that story, is to ignore reality.
It was clear four years in advance the battleground for Democratic Presidental want-a-be's would be the 16 scheduled primaries. In those ancient days, when politics was merely tainted with money, none of the five Democratic candidates could afford to compete in all the primaries, not even the two strongest candidates; the liberal junior Senator from Minnesota, Herbert Humphrey, and the conservative junior Senator from Massachusetts, John (Jack) Kennedy. As early as January 1957, the Jack Pack, as the Kennedy team was called, had decided on a startegy.
It was assumed by the pundits that Humphry would win the April 5 primary in his neighboring state of Wisconsin. But Wisconsin had a large Catholic population, and if the Catholic Kennedy came in a close second in the cheese state, he could count that as a win. Beyond Wiscconsin, the “Jack Pack” knew he would need a primary win in a strongly Protestant state. So early in 1958 pollester Louis Harris was hired to find a possible target.
His polls in West Virginia found Kennedy beating his probable Republican opponent Richard Nixon, by 14 points. And a full year before the primary, Kennedy had campaign chairmen in 39 of the state's 59 counties. Claude Ellis was named Kennedy chairman of Logan County. “First he sent (his) brother Ted and others - like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. - in here to try to help,” Ellis told a 2002 interviewer, adding that Teddy Kennedy, “spent several months traveling between Wisconsin and West Virginia campaigning...Logan people liked Teddy and (we) wanted to keep him here as long as he could stay.” A late 1959 Harris poll found JFK leading Humphery by forty points in West Virginia, and the Kennedy team began to shift resources to Wisconsin, which produced JFK's over-whelming victory in the April 5th , 1960 primary with 56% of the vote.
Humphrey (above, center) was now desperate to stop Kennedy in West Virginia, relying on his Logan county chairman, Raymomd Chafin, to use the party machinery to help. That help included a local poll (not a Harris poll) which claimed Humphrey had jumped out to a 20 point lead. No other polls hinted at such a shift, but with little questioning, the press attributed Humphrey's “surge” to local suspicision of Kennedy's Catholicism. Logan county was so poor, went the local joke, the schools only taught the three R's – Reading, R'writing and Route 23 to Columbus, Ohio”. Winning the support of those bigoted uneducated hillbillies could only be explained by a corrupt Kennedy machine.
Except...Chafin himself remembered the situation differently in a 1964 interview with William Young. Four years after the election Chafin recalled, “In my traveling around (and) over the county, I could see that the Kennedy forces were gaining strength, and they had more young people, and they had a good organization.” On April 25th, Kennedy himself made a well attended speech in Logan, followed by a crowded parade through the center of town. Dan Dahill, a local pol, remembered, “It was a carnival atmosphere. Everyone came together—except for Raymond Chafin’s faction, that is. Raymond and his candidates were all brooding up in their Aracoma Hotel headquarters that day,”
Now, Monday April 25, 1960 was two weeks before the primary, and one week before the alledged pay off. Why would Kennedy buy an election which every indicator, save for one errent poll, said he was already winning? Kennedy had invested three yeas of time, money and effort in West Virginia. And while cash payments to political bosses might buy a close election, Kennedy would win the West Virginia primary (May 10th) ) by 23 points – 61% to 39% for Humphrey. That was a landslide. And you don't buy those with one week's work.
We also have two versions in agreement of a phone converstation between Claude Ellis and Chafin in the first week of May, 1960, after the parade in Logan County and about the time of the alledged payoff. Both men agree on what was said, but Chafin's version – again from 1964 – was that Ellis asked, “Are we working on you, Chafin?” And I said, “Yeah, you’re working on us pretty rough. Looks like that some of our group would like to go along with you on this Kennedy thing.”
In other words, the experienced poltician Chafin had followed the public, once he was convinced they were not following him. And the story he manufactured thirty-four years later was another example of the same thing, giving the public of 1994 – the year of Newt Gingrich's Republican “Contract With America” - what they wanted – proof that a Kennedy conspiracy had stolen the West Virginia primary. In fact, that had not happened.
The general election on Tuesday, November 8, 1960 produced a Kennedy victory in the popular vote by 1/10 of 1%, - a margin so thin the news organizations did not confirm the results until Wednesday afternoon. Republican National Committee Chairman, Senator Thurston Morton of Kentucky, filed suits in eleven states on November the 11th. The most exstensive recount demanded was in Richard J. Daley's Cook County, Illinois. Kennedy had carried the state by just 9,000 votes out of 4,750,000 votes cast.
The results from the recount of 863 precints, reported on December 9, 1960, showed errors in almost every single precint. But not a single outcome was changed. Over all Nixon gained just 943 votes, and in 40% of the precincts the recount showed errors had been made in favor of the Republicans. In other words, the recount uncovered not fraud but the mistakes you would expect to see when any large beaurocracy of well-meaning amatures periodically makes a maximum effort - every line on every ballot was another opportunity for error, rules were misinterpited and every confusion was magnified. And then there the mistakes made by the voters themselves.
Still the National Republican Party appealed to the Illinois State Board of Elections, chaired by two term Republican governor William “Billy the Kid” Startton. The four Republican and one Democratic board members rejected that appeal – unanimously. So the NRC filed a Federal lawsuit. The judge (a Democrat) ruled that based on the appeal filed, he did not have jurisdiction. The RNC could have refiled, choosing different legal grounds which might have given the judge grounds to consider the election, but they did not.
There were also issues in Texas, but Kennedy's margin of victory was even larger there, than in Illinos. And in Texas the political machinery even more heavily tilted toward the party in power, which in 1960 was the Democratic party. In short, Kennedy won by a razor thin majority, winning legally and morally. But the Republican Party stewed over the preceived injustice of the myth, and an entire generation of Republican politicians found their frustrattions to be ably expressed in the personality of their 1968 standard bearer, Richad Nixon again. And Nixon begat the 21st century voter supression I.D. Laws, created again to correct the myth of the stolen election of 1960.
If the Republican Party is to have a future in America, they need to surrender their myths, and begin reaching for the future, instead.
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