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Last Call in the Kennedy Belt

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Last Call in the Kennedy Belt

In regions of eastern Pennsylvania, the Kennedy Democrats of 1960 are today’s Trump Republicans—a voting bloc that could largely determine this year’s election. October 28, 2020
Politics and law

Sixty years ago today, with a presidential election looming, John F. Kennedy embarked on a brutal, 18-hour campaign tour of eastern Pennsylvania. The state, then possessing 32 Electoral College votes, was crucial for Kennedy to win against Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee. In the industrial cities and towns that Kennedy’s campaign targeted, it was an exuberant season—and would prove more so after his subsequent victory, especially for those Catholics who viewed the Democratic candidate’s triumph as a kind of cultural enfranchisement.

Decades later, in 2016, descendants of those Kennedy supporters were pivotal to Donald Trump’s Pennsylvania victory. As it happens, they reside in the same areas—the anthracite coal region and Lehigh Valley—that were the keystone to Kennedy’s win. Next Tuesday, these voters—battered by a pandemic, divided by tumult—will decide if Trump wins a second term, or if Joe Biden becomes America’s second Catholic president. As Election Day nears, revisiting that Friday in late October 1960 makes for a rendezvous with Pennsylvania’s electoral past—one that helps explain the state’s important role in 2020.

Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, described October 28, 1960 as “the wildest day of the campaign.” The chaotic schedule was necessary in a state that was too close to call. It began at 1 AM Friday, when Kennedy’s plane—named “Caroline,” after his daughter—landed at an airport in the Lehigh Valley. His delayed arrival followed a packed day in New York, where he drew hundreds of thousands in the city’s boroughs. Even at that late hour, though, Kennedy drew a large crowd, which gathered around his open convertible. “It took nearly 20 policemen to open a hole through the throngs and clear the path,” one paper reported.

Photo: Greater Hazleton Area Historical Society

Few hours passed before Kennedy’s first event at an aging hotel in downtown Bethlehem, the city well-known for being home to America’s second-largest steel producer. At the time, many Bethlehem Steel workers lived in the city’s South Side, an ethnic Catholic neighborhood and a source of Democratic votes for Kennedy. On that day, the Associated Press had reported the company’s “pretty good year,” even though it was operating at 55 percent of capacity. But Bethlehem Steel’s chairman, Arthur Homer, dismissed concerns about the future. “Anyone who says the steel industry is going to pot, as some of our friends who are running for election say, hasn’t looked at the figures,” he said.

Kennedy understood that steel was the Lehigh Valley’s lifeblood. In his remarks at Bethlehem’s Moravian College, where he spoke before thousands of students, Kennedy warned that the U.S. couldn’t compete with the Soviet Union if it used its industrial facilities, such as steel mills, at limited capacity. One former Moravian student, recalling Kennedy’s speech, observed how everyone at the college “looked upon Sen. Kennedy as a young, vibrant person.” That perception of the 43-year-old Kennedy, among young and old, helped draw thousands throughout the region. Following his Moravian visit, Kennedy continued to nearby Allentown’s Center Square, where tens of thousands packed downtown to hear him speak.

From Allentown, Kennedy drove through Pennsylvania Dutch hamlets and into the anthracite coal region, home to a massive—and enthusiastic—Catholic voting bloc. While in Schuylkill County, one accompanying reporter, traveling with the campaign’s twenty-car motorcade, noted how “newsmen were impressed by the large turnouts [and] the cleanliness of the towns.” In Pottsville, the county seat, Kennedy spoke before 12,000 people, including a large contingent of union workers. In the city’s Garfield Square, he touted his efforts, as senator, to bring unemployment relief to states like Pennsylvania. “Don’t let them tell you,” he said, “that the half-baked Republican substitute depressed areas bill would have brought any relief to the coal regions.”

After Pottsville, Kennedy proceeded north to Tamaqua and McAdoo, where thousands delayed his caravan’s drive to Hazleton. Prior to Kennedy’s arrival, numerous dignitaries spoke to a crowd of 12,000—the largest in the city’s history—in front of downtown Hazleton’s Altamont Hotel. Thomas Kennedy—national president of the United Mine Workers, former Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, and city resident—predicted that the Democratic ticket would carry the state’s industrial regions by an “overwhelming” margin. William Bachman, the city’s state representative, noted how Hazleton’s biggest challenge was unemployment—fueled by the local mining industry’s collapse in the mid-fifties, when back-to-back hurricanes flooded the mines.

Upon his arrival, Kennedy delivered a speech declaring that if anyone “believes that a minimum wage of $1.25 is extreme, Mr. Nixon is your man.” While in Hazleton, Kennedy had wired Nixon, requesting a final answer on a fifth television debate. The Nixon campaign dismissed Kennedy’s “ill-advised ultimatum” and broke off negotiations.

Following his address, Kennedy had lunch at nearby Gus Genetti’s hotel and then proceeded north through Luzerne County’s Wyoming Valley. Once in downtown Wilkes-Barre, the county seat, Kennedy was greeted by over 30,000 in the city’s public square. While speaking, he spotted a supporter holding a sign: “12,000 Unemployed, We Never Had It So Good.” “I wish Mr. Nixon would come here and run on that program, ‘never had it so good,’” Kennedy quipped.

After Wilkes-Barre, the motorcade continued through riverside, GOP-leaning towns, such as Forty Fort and Exeter, where thousands waited to catch a glimpse. In Pittston, manic crowds created a dangerous situation when they stormed Kennedy’s convertible to shake his bloodied hand. “The car was barely moving at 5 mph, and soon it was totally blocked,” recalled one witness. “The sleeve of Kennedy’s topcoat was being ripped off until a state trooper pushed a screaming student off the car.” “It’s like this guy is some kind of messiah,” said David Lawrence, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, who drove with Kennedy.

The 17-mile trek from Wilkes-Barre to Scranton took Kennedy’s motorcade two and a half hours. Arriving in Scranton’s heavily Irish westside, he was greeted by 20,000; then, in the city’s downtown, another 22,000 gathered outside the Watres Armory, where, inside, 16,000 happily endured a three-hour delay to hear him speak. In his speech, Kennedy asked the crowd to “decide what your view is of your country, your community, your history, your future,” telling them to “vote yes to the Sixties.”

Though it was late, Kennedy’s barnstorm wasn’t over. After the Scranton rally, he flew to Philadelphia for a fundraising dinner at a suburban country club. An AP reporter said it was “raining pitchforks, anchors, gingham dogs, and calico kittens” when Kennedy’s caravan headed west to Newtown Square, in solidly Republican Delaware County. Though the candidate was running five hours behind, his 1,000 supporters waited in the rain-drenched tent outside the clubhouse. Then, at 1:37 a.m.—“perhaps the oddest time, place, and circumstance in the history of American politics,” said the reporter—Kennedy began his rally. “I hate to interrupt this party,” he said. “I don’t think this is any hour for a speech.” But he gave it, before finally ending the day at a nearby motel.

“Never, in all these campaign travels, have I seen the raw emotionalism exhibited for Sen. Kennedy as he trekked through six eastern Pennsylvania counties,” declared William Loftus, a Scranton Times reporter. Indeed, the state’s voter registration numbers reflected the enthusiasm. It was that day, for the first time in state history, that Democrats surpassed Republicans in voter numbers—a milestone fueled by northeastern Pennsylvania’s Catholic population. One Washington bureau chief, though, questioned Kennedy’s viability. “Poll all you want too, you just can’t poll people on the religious question,” said Hearst’s David Sentner, noting the “silent vote” of Protestants who favored Nixon.

But that jubilant Friday, 60 Octobers ago, told a different story. “It’s a landslide for this guy,” said one New York reporter, assessing Kennedy’s prospects. November 8 brought no landslide, but Kennedy won, thanks in large part to the fervor his campaign generated in battleground Pennsylvania.

Time has relegated that remarkable day to decennial commemorations in local newspapers. And it was long ago. For perspective, in 1960, it had been only 60 years since William McKinley, with his running mate Theodore Roosevelt, defeated William Jennings Bryan in a 1900 presidential rematch. But countless Pennsylvanians are still around who remember that day, when they were children or even adults. They saw Kennedy in their hometowns, where he inspired hope in their future.

In many cases, though, the future didn’t deliver. In Northampton County’s Bethlehem, the steel mills, which helped build New York’s skyline, closed. In Schuylkill County, those tidy coal “patch” towns became hubs of despair. And in Luzerne County’s cities, crime increased while employment declined. Meantime, the Catholic churches—where devout parishioners once doubled as Kennedy voters—weren’t spared. Many struggling parishes closed, and when the Church scandals hit, the remaining pews slowly emptied. In each passing election cycle, more and more voters felt disillusioned, if not forgotten—especially as their communities inexorably declined.

In 2016, Donald Trump carried these counties, in part, by winning legions of their Democratic voters—including Catholics who fondly remembered Kennedy’s campaign. Northampton and Luzerne, it turned out, were one of three Obama-to-Trump counties statewide. Luzerne alone fueled 60 percent of Trump’s winning margin in Pennsylvania. And their support wasn’t just based on coal and steel—those industries had been gone for decades. Instead, they were revolting against both political parties, which failed to address long-time socioeconomic concerns, including the creation or retention of stable manufacturing jobs.

Bruce Haines is a former U.S. Steel executive who co-owns the Hotel Bethlehem, where Kennedy started that eventful October day. Post-Covid-19, his landmark hotel struggles amid ongoing state-level restrictions. Haines focuses on Trump’s economic record, not his handling of the pandemic. “I spent 35 years in the steel business and I can tell you unfair trade deals were done by Republicans and Democrats,” he told the New York Times. Noting both parties’ failures, Haines called Trump “the savior of American industry.” “He got it. He’s the only one,” he added.

Scores of eastern Pennsylvania voters, many Democratic, share Haines’s verdict, which has benefitted the GOP. Indeed, during the Trump years, continued economic expansion occurred in the coal region and Lehigh Valley. The logistics industry, for example, drives Northampton’s prosperity. Meantime, in Schuylkill and Luzerne, warehousing projects abound. In these regions, many working-class voters view the Republican Party as a champion of their interests. As a result, Republicans have significantly narrowed Democrats’ post-1960 voter registration edge—particularly in once reliably Democratic counties like Luzerne, Northampton, and even Lackawanna, home to Scranton.

But this year, Scranton, still a heavily Democratic city, complicates Pennsylvania’s electoral map. After all, it’s the birthplace of Joe Biden. In 1960, when Kennedy visited the city, Biden was a football player at Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school in suburban Wilmington. At that point, Biden’s family had lived in Delaware for eight years, but his mother’s side of the family had deep Irish-Catholic Democratic roots in Lackawanna. Even today, that tribal mentality endures in Scranton, where plenty of voters, young and old, still view the Democratic Party with nostalgia.

The Kennedy era undoubtedly inspired Biden, who tried to speak in the idealistic language of the president and his brother, Robert. (In 1987, during his first run for president, this tendency got him into trouble). Last weekend, campaigning in a Luzerne suburb, Biden addressed the same issues mentioned by Kennedy in 1960: a higher minimum wage, social welfare, rising unemployment. He also touted his roots in Scranton, where “money does not determine your worth,” and he described the “lessons shaped by our Catholic faith.”

It remains to be seen how many voters will consider Biden’s remarks, before a drive-by rally, as comforting and evocative versus stale and scripted. A candidate’s Catholic faith, moreover, no longer determines political destiny, especially in an election that favors the state’s incumbent attorney general, Democrat Josh Shapiro, who won bipartisan praise for releasing a 2018 grand jury report on clergy abuse in Pennsylvania.

Scores of voters, in Scranton’s neighborhoods or in suburban towns elsewhere, are mobilized to reject a second Trump term. In one instance, suburban Philadelphia’s Delaware County—where Kennedy had concluded his October night—has dramatically shifted to the Democratic fold since 2016. Next week, enthusiasm for the president—on display in his Pennsylvania rallies or in places like Greater Hazleton—may not be enough, unless “silent Trump” voters deliver helpful margins in Pennsylvania’s Democratic-leaning suburbs.

On November 3, Pennsylvanians will determine which candidate gets their state’s 20 Electoral College votes. In 2020, as in 2016 and in 1960, the state will largely determine the election’s outcome. This is especially true in communities throughout the Lehigh Valley and the coal region, where yesterday’s Kennedy Democrats are today’s Trump Republicans. Who will they pick—Biden, who looks to claim the Kennedy mantle, or Trump, who hastened a working-class shift against the Democratic Party?

Top Photo: Greater Hazleton Area Historical Society (left) / Spencer Platt/Getty Images (right)

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