John F. Kennedy loved his Brooks Brothers suits and was particular about them. They had to be single-breasted, vented, made of dark blue worsted wool and typically augmented with shiny black wingtips. He wore these suits as comfortably as a lynx wears its fur. And he was wearing one on April 26, 1960, the day he sat down on a filthy set of mine car tracks in Mullens, West Virginia, to talk and joke with a crew of coal miners during a shift change at the Pocahontas Fuel Company
He became “almost as grimy as the miners,” wrote the UPI reporter on the scene, and nearly electrocuted himself on a low-hanging electrical wire. “When he left the mine,” noted the wire service reporter, “his face and hands were as black as if he had been digging coal.”
Later that day, Kennedy visited the river town of Welch, where he climbed on top of a nearby car and delivered an impromptu stump speech. “How can a candidate do anything for West Virginia if he doesn't come in here to see the existing conditions? I have spent a month in this state ... and my education has been expanded by my stay here.”
Though more than half a century in the past, Kennedy’s victory in the West Virginia primary that year—helmed by his campaign manager and brother Robert—offers clues to how a rich Northeastern outsider was able to sweep into the coal country in an expensive suit and capture the enthusiasm of the parents and grandparents of Appalachian whites who today feel forgotten and abused by the very establishment that JFK and RFK represented. In 1968, Bobby would go on his own journey through the Appalachian motherland of America’s Scotch-Irish white working class, and generate levels of enthusiasm and broad emotional support not seen again until Donald Trump’s arena spectacles earlier this year.
Trump managed to make the white working class feel like he empathized with them: a louche version of the Kennedy magic. If Democrats hope to recapture at least some of the embattled white people they once considered their reliable base, they would do well to study how the Kennedys—and even Trump—used their respective gifts to convince the voters that they were at least understood.
TIMES WERE DIFFERENT in the early 1960s, and the parallels are rough. Appalachia was still hard Democratic blue: a legacy of both the historic Solid South, which had not yet fractured over segregation, and the muscle of the miner’s union, which had not yet been dismantled. Both JFK and RFK were eager to get down to the physical level of their audiences, and let themselves be touched by calloused fingers. Trump never left the safety of his rostrum, and famously hates to shake hands.
But there are also significant commonalities between 1968 and today. The Kennedy brothers traveled through Appalachia during an era of technical and economic transformation that was knocking the pillars out of the widespread carbonaceous employment that had sustained the region since the end of the Civil War. The traditional methods of undercutting coal seams with blasting and timbering were giving way to gadgets like the power drill, the roof-bolter, and the Joy loader. Even then, thousands of once-necessary underground workers found themselves out of a job. Mining had always been a tough and enervating occupation, but it was still a craft that had to be learned. Mechanization turned journeymen into replaceable cogs.
The market for coal had also begun to shrink. The Union Pacific Railroad—a major customer—began switching out its coal-burning fleet of locomotives to liquid diesel fuel in the late 1940s, and by the end of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, the steam engine had all but disappeared from the American rails.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump did little to dirty himself with proletariat hands. But his anti-establishment message certainly played well with Appalachian whites. Here, a Trump supporter holds a sign during a rally in Charleston, West Virginia.
As John Kennedy contemplated his state-by-state strategy in the 1960 presidential primaries, West Virginia loomed like a mountain wall. The senator from New England was a Roman Catholic in an era when “popery” was still seen as a cousin to sedition among many hard-shell Protestants. Kennedy’s family wealth and Harvard pedigree were also cultural nonstarters among poor white West Virginians, whose primary concern about a presidential candidate was how much direct attention he might show toward their economic troubles.
With his own Brahmin background to overcome, Franklin D. Roosevelt had faced the same identity barriers and carried the state in all his four elections. One town had named itself “Eleanor” in honor of his wife. But even a generation after the height of the New Deal, some counties still had about a quarter of their population taking relief in the form of federal food packages. They were Democrats, but hungry.
Bobby Kennedy, campaign manager to his brother, sent a pollster to the state, conferred with some county party chairmen and reached the conclusion that the Catholic issue could be defused with an appeal to patriotism—JFK’s service on PT-109 would be invaluable here—followed by a simple projection of empathy for the poor.
“In Mingo County, there are 6,000 unemployed,” RFK told a meeting of organizers. “They don’t care he is Catholic—if he can get to them that ‘I care for you.’… In southern West Virginia, it is all food, family, and flag.”
Appalachian whites are generally descended from the Scotch-Irish—tenant farmers of Calvinist leanings who migrated into the inexpensive mountains after fleeing British oppression, and carried on the traditions of making their own clothes, furniture, and whiskey. They have a high rate of service in the U.S. military and lower rates of college education. After Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy recast national politics, they began the switch from Democratic to Republican.
“This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition comes along with many good traits—an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country—but also many bad ones,” wrote J.D. Vance in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy. “We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.”
With his patrician demeanor and funny-sounding Boston accent, JFK seemed to have little chance of convincing working-class people that he had any sympathy for them. The fake news of the day had it that he would be taking his orders from the pope in Rome instead of the American people. But with episodes like the one in Mullens, where he dirtied his Brooks Brothers suit on the rails, he found a way to establish some credibility with the West Virginians. His method of defusing the Catholic issue played to the state’s patriotism—just as Bobby had laid it out. “Nobody asked me if I was a Catholic when I joined the United States Navy,” JFK said in a speech at Morgantown.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy leads a party across a suspension bridge during his 1968 tour of Eastern Kentucky to look at Appalachian poverty.
Though West Virginia was only 5 percent Catholic, it gave Kennedy a decisive victory over Humphrey and laid the religious issue to rest. Kennedy knew how to show his gratitude. One of his first executive orders was to reinstitute a food stamp program. “I would not be where I now am, I would not have some of the responsibilities which I now bear, if it had not been for the people of West Virginia,” he said.
Before he died, JFK had made a promise to Kentucky Governor Edward Breathitt that he would visit the rural mountain slums of that state in December 1963, where he could see up close some of the successes and failures of the Area Development Act, a quintessential program of the era that distributed about one-third of its public largess to Appalachia. But the Area Development Act was small potatoes compared to what JFK had planned. His decision to inaugurate a War on Poverty—which he didn’t live to do, but which Lyndon Johnson carried through on—had partly been spurred by the time he’d spent campaigning in West Virginia.
Robert Kennedy had won his U.S. Senate seat from New York in 1964 partly on a War on Poverty platform, and he got himself assigned to the Committee on Labor’s Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty, which had made a highly publicized tour through the shotgun shacks and cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta in April 1967. RFK then arranged to conduct hearings in Kentucky; he’d be the sole lawmaker in attendance. To Governor Breathitt, he characterized the trip as a late fulfillment of his brother’s promise.
His aide, Peter Edelman, did the advance work with his colleague Tom Johnston and arranged a tour through multiple county seats and towns with strange company-bestowed names like Neon, Vortex, and Barwick, often consisting of nothing but a set of spindly railroad tracks, a coal tipple coated in black dust, a company store, a headframe for the mine, and an outcropping of houses clustered around streets spattered with gumbo mud.
Edelman’s recollection is of impoverished people jamming into tiny city halls that could hold no more than 30 of them, with citizens eager to tell Kennedy about their struggles. The senator was a characteristic combination of shy and aggressive, asking many questions about low-protein diets and job-training programs that went nowhere. Simply throwing money at poverty was no solution, they told him, if it didn’t lead to jobs.
At one stop, Kennedy bent over to talk to a small boy, who had been made nervous by all the hubbub. “I know you’re scared,” RFK told the boy. “But everything is going to be OK.” The gentleness of the gesture left an impression on Edelman.
The trip wound through Whitesburg, the home of author and journalist Harry M. Caudill who had written an erudite and influential portrait of the region entitled Night Comes to the Cumberlands. “Tens of thousands of acres fell to the exploiters, from a people who, though they might fight each other with medieval brutality, at a business negotiation were as guileless as infants,” wrote Caudill. JFK had ordered his aides to read the book in preparation for a more aggressive plan to help the struggling people. Caudill had become a regional celebrity and helped pioneer the “poverty tour” for outsiders to see the plight of Appalachian workers. In his later years, he referred to the area as a “welfare reservation” that industry had fled and people had been left to suckle from ineffective government aid.
Not everybody welcomed RFK’s scrutiny and the publicity it brought. The coal companies, in particular, were embarrassed and defensive. On February 13, RFK attempted to take his 12-car motorcade—including an escort of four Kentucky State Troopers in police cruisers—up a mountain road to inspect a strip mine. They faced a blockade placed in the road by the company foreman, a man named Roy Mullins, who drove Kennedy back down the hill in his own car.
“We have men working up ahead and lots of equipment on the road,” he told Kennedy, in words reported by the UPI reporter on the scene. “We don’t want any of you to get injured.” After being dumped at the base of the hill, Kennedy insisted he only wanted a look at the mine, but Mullins waved him away, saying he doubted that day’s mission was “objective.”
“You certainly gave me an objective trip down,” Kennedy shot back.
Local Democratic Party hacks were also suspicious of this national figure who represented a challenge to their grip on the region’s authority. “Politics was feudal,” recalled Edelman, who has been a professor of law at Georgetown University since 1981. “The courthouse crowd was completely in thrall to coal companies. Local officials got elected on the basis of fear and loyalty. They were running a dictatorship.”
But Kennedy was able to talk over the heads of the local brass. “He connected with everybody,” said Edelman. “He mostly listened. People would feel he was totally in their corner.”
A 71-year-old man named Orville Rogers wrote RFK after the trip: “I know you understand what kind of conditions I am living in. … You can count on my vote what ever you run for.” His letter was preserved in Edward R. Schmitt’s book The President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty, which also recorded the response of Willard Yarbrough of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “Kennedy has identified himself with the poverty, and all its miseries that besets so many millions in this country. He is now one of the faceless hungry. More than that, he is also their newfound champion.”
Unlike John or Robert Kennedy, Hillary Clinton's scripted outreach to the working class did not involve any real movement outside her zone of comfort; no opportunities to joke with miners on dirty rails.
The small-town press was equally laudatory. “We were convinced the senator felt so strongly about the plight of some of the families he visited that they, and their troubles, have become a permanent part of his subconscious,” editorialized the liberal Mountain Eagle newspaper in Whitesburg. “The senator will never be able to forget Eastern Kentucky… and both he and Eastern Kentucky will be the better for it.”
After RFK’s assassination in Los Angeles, Humphrey took the nomination and—thanks to the Republican western counties—lost Kentucky to Richard Nixon by a decisive six points.
Though it lasted only two days, Kennedy’s journey still looms in the sentimental imagination of the region, and in the collective consciousness of some lunch-bucket Democrats who remember the party’s subsequent forays into the politics of white deprivation and alienation. Several office seekers have recreated RFK’s tour by making their own campaign swings through the Cumberland Plateau: Bill Clinton, Paul Wellstone, John Edwards, and Jesse Jackson have all passed this way. In 2004, the Los Angeles playwright John Malpede staged a dramatic reconstruction inside a string of local halls with actors dressed in period costumes reading lines from the transcripts of Kennedy’s hearings.
There was nothing resembling a deep poverty tour on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, though she did make a two-day bus swing through Pennsylvania and Ohio after the Democratic convention. “We’re going to make sure that people start making things and building things here in America because we know that small businesses are at the core of creating most of the good jobs in America,” she said at a toy factory in Hatfield. But her scripted outreach to the working class did not involve any real movement outside her zone of comfort; no opportunities to joke with miners on dirty rails.
Trump also did little to dirty himself with proletariat hands, but his anti-establishment message certainly played well with Appalachian whites—as, for some of them, did his coarseness. A man named Chris King, from the town of War, West Virginia, told me via electronic message that Trump’s inarticulateness made him a far more believable politician than Clinton. “The fact that he's not very articulate suggested that he relates to the everyday workingman, even if he does live in a high-rise.”
POVERTY NOW HAS a different face in Appalachia, the one part of the country made up almost entirely of the white working class. The Appalachian Regional Commission created in the midst of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, helped build roads, hospitals, water treatment plants, and schools. Outright hunger and malnutrition is no longer a problem, but a persistent lack of options dogs the region. In 2014, the per capita income of the mountain counties of Kentucky was $30,308, well below the $46,049 average for the rest of the country. About a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line.
Trump’s message of renewed economic life—however far-fetched—arrived amid another hinge period for the coal economy. New coal plant environmental requirements and competition from the shale gas industry have made underground coal mining a marginal proposition. The “mountaintop removal” method, so damaging to creeks and the water supply, is also less labor-intensive. Kentucky and West Virginia have shed 38,000 coal jobs since 1983. What’s left are low-level service jobs, which are themselves precarious. The decline in the number of miners has also spelled a loss of influence for the United Mine Workers, which, when you don't count the retirees the union counts as members, may now stand at fewer than 10,000 in the state. The main institution that anchored voters to the world of Democratic economics and politics is essentially no more. The strongest remaining institutions are evangelical churches, which tend to emphasize bedroom issues like abortion and gay marriage over the kitchen issues of economics.
Another factor in the divorce between West Virginia and the Democratic Party is the state’s demographic profile. In the 2010 census, just 1 percent of the state’s population was foreign born—the lowest share of any of the 50 states. The persistent lack of economic growth has meant that few immigrants have moved there.
The rancor that has long simmered in Appalachia now has an altered shape: Today, it is directed more against Washington elites instead of the greed of coal companies. In November, voters there cast their ballots for a candidate who proposed a slashing change to the political order, in rhetoric that went straight to the gut.
It wasn’t the corporations that Trump went after; it was the government that had entered into those trade and climate accords. “Your government betrayed you, and I’m going to make it right,” roared Trump at an arena in the industrial wasteland of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, three weeks before the election, in his own rally-driven, crazy-house version of RFK’s poverty tour. “Your jobs will come back under a Trump administration. … Your steel will come back. … We’re putting your miners back to work.”
The crowd swarms around then-Senator John F. Kennedy after his speech on May 6, 1960, in Huntington, West Virginia.
If this sounds like a pie-in-the-sky promise, that’s how it landed in Appalachia, too, said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky. “Did people really believe Trump was going to breath life back in necrotic coal mines and steel mills? No,” he said. “What people here believed was that they had more in common with Trump voters than Hillary voters, who have become increasingly urban, professional, and different. They abandoned traditional blue-collar constituencies.”
Trump’s brash style doubtlessly helped him connect with audiences, said Davis, adding that he was reminded of the main character of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” who gleefully brags of his own chicanery before proceeding to tell a moral tale about the consequences of greed.
I reached out to a group of Trump supporters in West Virginia’s McDowell County, the epicenter of JFK’s 1960 outreach to one of America’s most neglected hollows, and still the county with the lowest income and highest teenage birthrate in the state. I asked what about Trump had inspired their imagination and confidence.
Billy Van Dyke, a former physical therapy technician from the U.S. Air Force, said Trump’s blunt rejection of establishment values won him over.
“I would say that he connected with the West Virginia people because he is not a smooth talking politician,” he wrote me in a message only slightly edited for punctuation. “He got mad and spoke his mind, a lot of times out-of-line and without polish, just like we think. He brought things back to basics if you will, by saying that we need to get back to protecting our borders, taking care of our vets and our troops, and prosecuting the corrupt politicians that seem to get away with things that us common folk could not or ever would. He spoke to the hard-working mentality of the people of West Virginia and made us feel like we were/are important in the big cog of government.”
Does this mean the Democrats should either field a tub-thumping demagogue or abandon the region entirely? Neither are good options; the Democrats still need enough support from the Appalachian regions of states like Pennsylvania and Ohio to win the presidency and the Senate. It could come down to reinvigorating the county-level Democratic structures that long ago withered into husks, as well as affirming the patriotic values that JFK invoked to such great effect. It could come down to having a plausible plan for decent jobs in a post-coal economy. “If we want to make a serious effort to get those white numbers back, we have to organize them to be effective,” said Edelman. “That has to start now and not in some future election time. Maybe they will come back to being Democrats if they feel some empathy.”
From West Virginia, Mike Muncy told me the heart of Trump’s appeal was his anti-government message: a stark contrast from the direct help that JFK and RFK were proposing. “It's not that West Virginia wants Trump to save us,” wrote Muncy. “Our issue isn't that we need a president to save us. We just want them to leave us alone. Our problems are created by our government. So it's an easy fix. Just leave us alone, stay out of our homes, our jobs, our churches, our communities, our schools, and we will be just fine.”
And yet, when I asked him, why the Democratic Party had utterly failed to win the trust of Appalachia this year, Muncy’s answer didn’t quite jell with his ideology. He responded by posting a photo that had been published in Life magazine in 1960—an image of JFK in a crisp suit sitting on a dusty track in Mullens, West Virginia, chatting with a circle of men who had emerged from a shift in the underground coal mines.
Muncy captioned the photo, “That time when Democrats still cared.”
Click here to rest of our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats.