Murray exhibit examines JFK in western Kentucky in '60 race

Murray State's Jeff McLaughlin stands with the Kennedy collection. Ryan Hermens, The Paducah Sun

It was Oct. 8, 1960, when a weary John F. Kennedy delivered a 1,500-word speech tailored to a Paducah audience, part of a "full-court press" to win the commonwealth in a closely contested presidential campaign.

Kennedy praised Paducah's Alben Barkley, the city's "tradition of democracy" and cited differences with Republican challenger Richard Nixon, with whom he "could not disagree more."

"Here in this community, which depends upon harnessing of the rivers, which depends upon the breaking of the atom, which depends upon the maintenance of an effective agricultural program, I believe that you here in Kentucky … join me in looking forward out of this wellspring of American vitality and scenes of history," said Kennedy, while waiting for his plane to fuel.

"I believe that you say now in 1960 that it is time the United States started moving again."

Kennedy's Paducah visit, albeit brief and between campaign stops, is highlighted in the new exhibit at Murray State, "Kennedy Comes to Kentucky," which opened in mid-November at Wrather West Kentucky Museum on campus.

The exhibit, open until March 14, explores the 1960 election and emphasizes Kennedy's western Kentucky campaign efforts, specifically in the Jackson Purchase.

Dr. Jeff McLaughlin, Murray State special collections and exhibits director, said Kennedy's Paducah speech was "unfortunately a bit of an afterthought."

JFK was stressed and tired from previous events in Bowling Green, but he rallied enough to speak in Paducah, knowing "every single state (including Kentucky) is gonna matter" against Nixon in the election.

Kentucky, which leaned Democratic in 1960, went to Nixon, though Kennedy won most of western Kentucky, including all eight counties in the Jackson Purchase, McLaughlin said.

"The interesting thing here is that he invested a whole lot of time in Kentucky in October of 1960," said McLaughlin, the exhibit curator and a researcher whose concentration includes Kennedy and the Vietnam War.

"The clock is ticking, a month before the November election, and he spends about 2 1/2 days in the state, so he really wanted it bad, he put in the effort. But he just didn't end up carrying the state."

The Jackson Purchase back then, McLaughlin explained, tended to vote for Democratic candidates "even if he's not as attractive to a more general audience."

Kennedy, the curator said, spoke to Kentucky-centric issues while campaigning the state, such as boosting ag prices, assisting farmers and addressing poverty in Appalachia.

But he was dogged by religious questions, perhaps hurting his chances in largely evangelical protestant Kentucky.

"Back during these days there was a fear -- and this was something that would come up in polite conversation -- that if a Catholic became president of the United States, his ultimate loyalty would be to the pope in Rome, not the U.S. Constitution," McLaughlin said. "So you actually had ministers in some of their sermons saying, 'Don't vote Kennedy, we can't have a Catholic president.'"

Even some of the "better known shot callers of the era" in western Kentucky were hesitant to publicly back JFK, McLaughlin said.

"A lot of them supported him in private, but they didn't want to tell their friends," he said.

"They knew if they got associated with this Kennedy wing of the party and were stumping for the Catholic, they might end up alienating people and losing votes."

McLaughlin is currently working on a book, "Ignoring 'Nosey Charlie': The Kennedy administration's rejection of French efforts to broker peace in Vietnam, 1961-1963," for the University Press of Kentucky. It's likely to be released in 2019.

His Kennedy exhibit at Murray features historic photos and documents, campaign memorabilia, and video from JFK and Nixon engaged in the country's first televised presidential debate.

McLaughlin said there's a stark contrast between the 1960 debate and the most recent presidential race.

"I think anybody who watches this clip would wish that we could go back to this time when there was respect, dignity and decorum," he said.

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