This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.
THE WHITE HOUSE’S ANSWER TO WEST VIRGINIA
I address you tonight as a candidate for President of the United States. That is a solemn responsibility - and your responsibility in selecting the next President is equally solemn. For no other office in the land is so important in determining your future - in leading our country to peace or war, to prosperity or depression, to hope or despair.
I believe I can now best serve my nation in the Presidency. I have served it for 18 years – in the Navy, in the House, and in the Senate. And I have a deep and abiding confidence in our country’s future, in our ability to meet the Soviet challenge and to fulfill our national destiny - if we can have vigorous, responsible leadership.
I am asking for the opportunity to provide this leadership, under the banner of the Democratic Party. And because I believe this decision is too important to be left to a few political leaders, I have submitted my candidacy to the Democratic voters of this country in every available primary. I have asked them to judge my record, my views and my fitness for high office – and in the 7 primaries held thus far, I have been deeply gratified by their confidence.
Now, on next Tuesday, it is West Virginia’s turn to speak to the nation. I am here in this primary by choice. I could have avoided it without peril to my candidacy. I could have ignored it, as did the other serious candidates in both parties. But I am here because I believed the people of West Virginia had a right to help select the next President.
And win or lose, I shall never regret that decision. For contrary to what appears in the national press, I have found the citizens of this proud state to be industrious - fair-minded - and wonderfully friendly to my wife and myself. This is a state to be proud of – a state that proportionately gave up more men to the Korean War than any other - a state of rich resources, spectacular beauty and, most of all, raw courage – a state that refuses to give up.
For West Virginia does have special problems and it does need special attention. It has new and booming industries and bustling cities - but it also has more than its share of depressed areas, jobless men, abandoned mines, forgotten people. A President can hear about those problems - he can read reports – but unless he has spent a month here, seeing it for himself and talking with the people, he cannot fully grasp this state’s urgent need for action.
What is happening here in West Virginia, moreover, is happening in other states with chronically depressed areas - Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, and my own state of Massachusetts. It is happening in other industries undergoing automation - in this case, the mechanization of the mines, both a blessing and a curse - for automation, machines replacing men, is one of the growing new problems the next President cannot avoid. And the neglect felt by West Virginia has been felt elsewhere, too, during these last 8 years - by farmers and older citizens and teachers and disabled veterans and millions of others.
So I am glad I came to West Virginia - to meet its people - to learn its needs and aspirations - to understand what must be done, and done promptly, by the next President. With your help, and the help of Divine Guidance, I hope to enter the White House next January and give this state and nation the kind of leadership we need - not just a coordinator - not just a politician or an orator – but a man who will truly be the President of the United States.
Next week I shall leave West Virginia for other primaries - but I shall come back. I will never forget West Virginia. And I shall take with me the memories and the impressions of a wonderful state and its need for a “fair break” - not simply in terms of cold statistics and campaign promises, but in terms of the human beings whom I met, down in the mines and up in the hollows, in your cities and towns, by your mountains and creeks.
I shall never forget the man down in Fayette County who had worked 27 years in the same mine. Now it had shut down. He had been to 15 counties looking for mining work, the only work he knows. All he can find is a little punch mine work, averaging 1-1/2 days a week.
Now his unemployment benefits are running out. His oldest girl sends money home from her Government job in Washington - but the other 11 children are at home, in a company-owned house. The rent is months overdue - but my friend was determined to pay it all back to the company that had let him go after 27 years.
The day I saw him he announced to his family that he had passed his silicosis test. He didn’t mean the doctor had given him a clean bill of health - he meant he had enough of a case to receive a compensation check of $1000. He tried to reassure his family that all would be well. But his wife was worried – about his health, about how long the $1000 would last, and about what they would do then if he were ill. But he felt better just to have the $1000 - for he told me that another man had broken into the Post Office - to steal a package that he never opened – just so he could be sent to jail and his family could be put on the welfare rolls.
I shall always remember a lady with whom I talked in Logan County, with 10 children, ages 2-17. Her husband was in Pennsylvania looking for work, the first time he had been away from his family in 20 years. And they didn’t know whether they would ever be a family together again.
This woman remembered the depression of 30 years ago. But at least then, she said, as a girl, she had fresh food and milk, and sometimes a new dress to wear. But now she was feeding her children with moligrub from the Department of Agriculture - surplus flour, cornmeal, rice, a little lard and cheese and dried eggs, and some powdered skim milk which the children detested. Those who were in school would save some of the free lunch to bring home to the others. And meanwhile surplus foods of a much richer variety - fruits, meats, poultry and vegetables – are being shipped overseas and practically given away.
Finally I want to mention an older couple I visited in Huntington. The husband was 66, a former machine tool operator in a big industrial plant. Last year he had been laid off for 4 ½ months. This year he had been out 2 months - and now he was sick, living in a cold, drafty room divided by a curtain.
Last year, when his unemployment benefits expired, he had turned to his brother-in-law, then his neighbor, and finally, to keep up the payments on his furniture, to a “loan shark” - who was now taking him for all he had, and his furniture, too.
He’s been sick in bed now for more than 2 months. The drugs and the doctor visits have used up every cent he has and every cent his wife and children can raise. Where do they turn next, he asked me - for he did not know - and he was old and afraid.
Where do these people turn next? The answer must necessarily be: to the President of the United States – to a program of new jobs and new industries, defense contracts, road building, steam plants to use the coal, new schools for the young, new help for the old, and a decent diet of decent food for every American.
All this and more can be done - by a President who knows West Virginia. I am asking for your help because I want to help - because I think I can do the job. These people with whom I talked were not worried about my religion. They were not offended that my father was successful. They were not interested in any gang-up to “stop Kennedy”. All they wanted was a fair break. All West Virginia needs is a fair break. And all I ask from West Virginia next Tuesday is the same kind of fair break.
For West Virginia - more than any other small state in the country - has the opportunity and the power to nominate me for President. With your help, I want to tackle the problems that face this state and nation. As George Washington said in a dark hour of the Revolution:
“Leave me but a banner to plant upon the mountains of West Augusta and I will gather around me the men who will lift our bleeding country from the dust and set her free.”