Sixty years ago Tuesday, the president of the United States began his day unhappily. He was headed to Texas for some political fence-mending and the new weather forecast said temperatures were going to be warmer than previously expected. John Kennedy called the naval officer who had given the erroneous forecast and reprimanded him — First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had already packed woolen suits.
Kennedy made it to three Texas cities that day: San Antonio, where he was met by a crowd of 120,000 and declared that the nation “stood on the edge of a great new era characterized by achievement and by challenge,” then Houston, where he appeared at the League of United Latin American Citizens dinner and dined with the publisher of the Houston Chronicle and learned that a not-yet-published poll would show Barry Goldwater leading him in Texas in the next year’s presidential race. By that night, he was sleeping in Fort Worth.
It was Kennedy’s last full day alive. All those Texas appearances are now pushed aside by the one we remember most, that fatal ride through Dallas the following day.
Six decades on, the Kennedy assassination still rivets us — the horror of it, the tragedy of it, the controversy over who really did it and why.
On Wednesday, I’m sure you’ll see lots of stories about the anniversary of Kennedy’s death. For today, I’ll take a different approach, and on the anniversary of his last full day alive, I’ll look at his legacy in Virginia.
Let’s start with the politics.
Politics are always realigning, but one significant realignment had begun in the South after World War II as conservative voters began to turn away from the Democratic Party at the national level as that party moved further left. Virginia had broken from “the Solid South” in 1952 to vote for Republican Dwight Eisenhower and did so again in 1956. That set up Virginia as a swing state in 1960.
U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., D-Virginia and patriarch of what was called the Byrd Machine, had adopted a policy of “golden silence” for presidential elections — a signal that he was open to the Republican candidate. The Byrd Machine was starting to show some cracks, though, and some otherwise conservative Democrats in Virginia embraced Kennedy. In 1958, former Gov. John Battle had introduced Kennedy quite effusively at the University of Virginia as “the next president of the United States.” In 1960, Gov. Lindsay Almond — who had already angered Byrd by relenting on Byrd’s “Massive Resistance” to integration — issued a strong endorsement of Kennedy.
Both Kennedy and Richard Nixon contested Virginia in 1960. Nixon held a rally at Roanoke’s Victory Stadium; when I first joined The Roanoke Times, the executive editor was Forrest “Frosty” Landon. In his office, he had a photograph of himself as a young man interviewing Kennedy during a stop at the Roanoke airport. Kennedy’s hand was bandaged, a result of shaking too many hands.
Nixon won Virginia, but Kennedy won the presidency. An oddity that history often forgets: No one carried Mississippi. The winner there — with 38.9% of the vote — was an “unpledged” slate of eight conservative electors. In the Electoral College, they voted for Byrd. So did six other “faithless” electors, five from Alabama and one from Oklahoma. This presaged George Wallace’s third-party bid in 1968 and the overall realignment of the South away from Democrats.
Nixon’s win in Virginia was narrow — 52.44% to Kennedy’s 46.97% — and shows both how much politics have changed, and how much they haven’t.
Nixon’s strongest support was west of the Blue Ridge. That would be the same for a Republican today, although some of the other patterns have changed. His biggest vote share then was 72% in Harrisonburg; today Harrisonburg is a Democratic city where Joe Biden took 64.5% in 2020. On the other hand, Nixon’s second-best locality was Floyd County, with 70%. That county went 66% for Donald Trump in the last presidential election. Trump’s best locality in Virginia was Lee County with 84%. In 1960, all the coal counties still voted Democratic. Nixon also won Arlington and Fairfax counties, something Republicans today can only dream of.
Some places — and voter groups — change. Some do not. It’s hard to tie Kennedy’s election to any specific realignment; it was just one election in a continuum of events that rearranged parties in the South. It’s easier, though, to pinpoint two specific policy decisions the Kennedy administration made that impacted Virginia, particularly the western part of Virginia, to this day.
Interstate 64 was routed through Charlottesville, not Lynchburg
The interstate highway system is one of Eisenhower’s great legacies, but many of the key routing decisions came under Kennedy.
One of the big debates, which began in the 1950s, was whether Interstate 64 would take the “northern route” through Charlottesville and Waynesboro (as it presently does) or the “southern route” through Farmville, Lynchburg, Bedford and southern Botetourt County on its way to Clifton Forge.
The State Highway Commission, as it was called then, hired a consultant who recommended the northern route because it was 50 miles shorter and thus less expensive. Clearly that consultant did not understand state politics. Gov. Almond (who was from Roanoke) backed the southern route, and that’s what the state highway commission preferred, by a “surprise” 5-3 vote in 1959. The feds, though, were paying 90% of the cost and they got the final say. When the decision got to the newly installed Kennedy administration in 1961, Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges rejected Virginia’s advice and picked the northern route. Some darkly blamed Bill Battle, who was Kennedy’s campaign manager in Virginia — and was from Charlottesville.
Kennedy and Battle went back a long way: He served with Kennedy in the same naval squadron during World War II and took part in rescuing Kennedy and his crewmates on PT-109 after their vessel was sunk by the Japanese and the men took refuge on a nearby island. Kennedy rewarded Battle by naming him ambassador to Australia; the name Battle may be familiar to some because a) he was Gov. Battle’s son and b) he later became the Democratic nominee for governor in 1969, losing to Linwood Holton in that famous election. Did Kennedy also reward Battle’s hometown with an interstate? Or was this just a perfunctory bureaucratic decision based on the fact that the Charlottesville route was cheaper? In an interview in 1999 with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Battle said he never spoke with Kennedy about the routing decision. “There was nothing behind the scenes,” he said. “I never
talked to [Kennedy] about it. I just went up there with a delegation from here and made our case. … I guess we made a better case.”
Whatever the circumstances of the decision, the fact remains: The Kennedy administration overruled Virginia’s recommendation and routed I-64 through Charlottesville instead of Lynchburg. That’s a decision that’s arguably slowed the growth of Lynchburg’s economy; it’s unusual to find a city that size without an interstate. It’s also arguably helped spur growth in Augusta County, where I-64 joins up with I-81. Over the years, I’ve met multiple people who work in Charlottesville but live in Staunton and Augusta County because it’s cheaper — and an easy commute over Afton Mountain (at least when there’s not any fog).
The Appalachian Regional Commission was founded
One of the pivotal moments in Kennedy’s campaign came during the West Virginia Democratic primary in 1960, where he defeated Hubert Humphrey and showed that a Catholic candidate could win in an overwhelmingly Protestant state. Kennedy barnstormed the Mountain State to get that win and came away with a newfound appreciation for the poverty he found there. He promised to do something about that; his response was to create the Appalachian Regional Commission. (Another catalyst was the publication of “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Distressed Area” by Henry Caudill.) Kennedy’s commission was created by a presidential directive and therefore was temporary; after his death, the commission was codified into federal law.
It’s easy to look at the poverty that remains in Appalachia and say what difference did some federal bureaucracy make? A few relevant facts: Since the ARC was created to funnel billions of federal dollars into the region, the poverty rate in Appalachia has been cut nearly in half, the infant mortality rate has been cut by two-thirds, the percentage of students graduating from high school has doubled — Appalachia now matches the national average on that metric. There are challenges aplenty left to bring Appalachia fully into the nation’s economic mainstream, but Appalachia is a lot closer to that today than it was when Kennedy took office. His administration doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course, but it certainly deserves some for setting the structure in place for federal aid.
We routinely run announcements of ARC funding for communities in Virginia’s qualifying counties. Some of the recent ones: $1.4 million for wastewater treatment plants in Lee and Wise counties, $700,000 for a waterline in Hurley in Buchanan County, another $700,000 for waterline in St. Charles in Lee County, $700,000 for broadband in Patrick County, $500,000 for a dental clinic in Bland County. All those can ultimately be traced back to Kennedy. Perhaps people in those communities today should raise a glass of water in his honor.