Hot Air: Straight Talk

Here’s a funny little anecdote from the 1960 presidential election campaign.

John F. Kennedy travelled to West Virginia, coal mining country, that spring. Places like WV were crucial to his campaign. It was thought he’d get clobbered in states where Catholics, New Englanders, Harvard grads, and pampered quasi-liberals were viewed with only slightly less contempt than child molesters. Then again maybe child molesters were held in more esteem in those hinterlands. In fact, even visiting places like WV and South Carolina was seen as a crazy gambit on his part. Surely he’d be chewed up, torn up, eviscerated, and revealed for the wealthy playboy he really was.

JFK In West Virginia

Nevertheless, Kennedy went. He visited a coal mine. As the elevators came up from the bowels of the Earth, he shook hands with the ebony-smudged miners who emerged. One guy dutifully shook his hand and, staring the candidate straight in the eye, said, “Have you ever had a real job?”

Kennedy maintained his charming poise even as he almost imperceptibly recoiled from the question — which was more an indictment. Now, here’s the brilliance of Kennedy: He knew the guy was saying something, not asking something. And he knew no matter how he might have protested — Oh, I’ve toiled hard as a Senator, or I worked my fingers to the bone on my senior thesis — the coal miner would have none of it. Nor should he have.

So, Kennedy responded quickly and succinctly. “No I haven’t.”

Perfect, right?

Now it was the coal miner’s turn to recoil ever so slightly. And now it was his turn to maintain his poise. “That’s okay,” he said, “you aren’t missing anything.”

Imagine that exchange happening today.

Okay, as long as I’m on this roll, here’s another, again from Kennedy’s trip to West Virginia. One of the supposed negatives he had to deal with was the fact that his mega-rich old man was bankrolling his campaign. Wisely, JFK never tried to deny his wealth or pretend he was a simple man of the people. In fact, at a rally at the McDowell County courthouse, he jumped up on the sound truck platform outside the place and addressed the raucous crowd despite a threatening thunderstorm rolling in. The first thing he did was reach into his suit jacket pocket and pull out a slip of paper. It was, he said, a telegram from his father. He read it:

Don’t buy one more vote than necessary — damn if I’m going to pay for a landslide.

The crowd roared.


Big Talk

Tune in this afternoon for Big Talk on WFHB‘s Daily Local News. My guest will be another straight talker, Jeff Isaac, professor of political science at Indiana University. We’ll cover his days hanging out on street corners as a teenager in Queens, New York. The punk kid who preferred playing basketball to practicing piano never would have dreamed he’d become a robed academician when he grew up.

Who’d’a Thunk It?

Plus, I get to use the bleep machine as Isaac describes his feelings for our holy land’s current president.

As always, if you miss today’s broadcast, come by here tomorrow for links to the podcast. As speaking of links, here’s one for the entire, unedited interview I had with Bloomington writer and explorer Michael Waterford last week.

Talk to you then.

High Hopes

JFK’s campaign ditty, sung by Frank Sinatra.

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