New exhibit hails JFK’s W. Va. primary win in 1960

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the history-making year when John Fitzgerald Kennedy embarked on a nationwide campaign to win the nomination of his party for he Presidency.

To commemorate the political events of 1960, Dorchester’s JFK Library has embarked on a day-by-day observance of Kennedy’s march to his win over Richard Nixon in November, beginning with the remarkable triumph of the Catholic Kennedy in the West Virginia primary, where the electorate was 95 percent Protestant.

The Presidential Library has unveiled a new exhibit, Winning West Virginia—JFK’s Primary Campaign, that celebrates his epic win in that state.

On a tour of the exhibit last week, curator Stacey Bredhoff talked about the many fascinating historic documents now on display that help tell the story of that campaign, which helped to catapult Kennedy into front-runner status. “Early on, it became apparent that JFK’s greatest vulnerability was his religion,” curator Bredhoff said. “The state was 95 percent Protestant and Kennedy was Catholic.”

Before he began campaigning there, she said, he was ahead in the polls, but as his religious identity became known, his standing began to slip and he fell behind. “Some people feared that his allegiance would be to the pope, rather than to the Constitution. Kennedy decided to address the topic directly and repeatedly. He wanted to allay people’s fears and suspicions and focus on the real issues.”

In materials describing the exhibit, the Library says the West Virginia campaign “is considered by many historians to be one of the most significant state primaries in American political history, Kennedy’s landslide victory in West Virginia proved that Kennedy was a viable Presidential candidate, winning decisively in a state where Catholics comprised barely 5 percent of the population.”

On display are original photographs, documents and archival material that help to describe how largely poor and struggling West Virginia voters came to accept and endorse the Ivy League-educated Bostonian. Among the documents is a series of original notes in Kennedy’s own handwriting that reveal his doubts about the outcome of the race. Bredhoff explains that at a critical juncture in the campaign, the future president lost his voice to a heavy case of laryngitis, and resorted to providing written answers to questions from reporter Charles Bartlett. Later, Bartlett explained, “JFK had lost his voice and we communicated by cards which he pulled from his pocket.” The cards were kept in Bartlett’s own possession, and were loaned to the Library for this exhibit.

Additional items on view include: The original press release of Senator Kennedy’s April 21, 1960 speech to newspaper editors, described by Kennedy advisor Ted Sorensen as “his first full exposition of his views on church and state”; a black-and-white houndstooth suit worn by Jacqueline Kennedy while campaigning with her husband in West Virginia; Photographs of JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy campaigning there; and “The President’s House” crystal glassware purchased by Jacqueline Kennedy from West Virginia’s Morgantown Glassware Guild and later used at official functions at the White House, including pieces on loan from the White House.

The exhibit will remain open until mid-November.