RFK’s visit to Appalachia, 50 years later: How Kennedy country became Trump country
Fifty years later, locals fondly remember seeing Sen. Robert F. Kennedy speak in their small mining towns in the Appalachian region of Kentucky and consider the changes since then. USA TODAY
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., chats with two girls at Millers Branch School, a one-room school in Breathitt County, Ky.(Photo: AP)
BARWICK, Ky. – The line of big cars pulled up outside the one-room schoolhouse, which had a potbelly stove for heat and an outhouse in back. The senator burst in the door, followed by a pack of politicians, aides and journalists.
Robert F. Kennedy had come to learn about rural poverty. Instead, his arrival petrified the students, who sat riveted to their ancient desks with their heads down, afraid to even look at the great man and his entourage.
He sized up the problem. Instead of making a speech for the media, Kennedy moved quietly among the students, stopping to reassure them. He’d squeeze a hand, murmur in an ear. “What did you have to eat today?’’ he asked one girl. “I know you’re scared,’’ he told a boy, “but It’s gonna be all right.’’
Few who were there would forget how this powerful man reached those poor children with nothing but what the author William Greider, then of the Louisville Courier-Journal, would call “his physical humanity.’’
An early morning mist envelopes the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky as the sun rises over Pine Mountain. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)
That was 50 years ago — Feb. 13, 1968. Bobby Kennedy was a month from declaring for president and four months from an assassin’s bullet. For two days, he met people as poor and isolated as he was rich and famous. Somehow, they clicked.
Kennedy, heir to a fortune, “is now one of the faceless hungry,’’ reported the Knoxville News Sentinel: Not since FDR’s Depression-era campaigns in the South “had so many forlorn turned out with such hopeful enthusiasm.’’
The implications were not lost on Peter Edelman, a Kennedy aide. “I was certain that these people would be Democrats their whole lives,’’ he recalls, “and their children’s lives.’’
But no. Beginning in 2004, the six counties Kennedy visited began to shift Republican in presidential races. And in 2016, Donald Trump carried each with 70% to 80% of the vote.
What was Kennedy country is Trump country. Children of Kennedy Democrats are Trump Republicans. And for those inspired by RFK in 1968, what should be a happy anniversary is instead an occasion to puzzle a drastic reversal of political fortune.
RFK in EKY
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., leads a party across a suspension bridge in Feb.1968, during his tour of Eastern Kentucky to look at Appalachian poverty. (Photo: AP)
By February 1968, the Vietnam War had soured. Kennedy felt intense pressure to challenge its prosecutor, President Lyndon Johnson, for re-election.
In the midst of his agonized deliberations, he came here to study the effect of Johnson’s 4-year-old War on Poverty. Already, there were complaints about training programs for jobs that didn’t exist and signs that assistance from government was turning into dependence on government.
Eastern Kentucky had 20 of the nation’s 30 poorest counties; coal mining, one of the few sources of prosperity the region had known, had begun its long decline. Many people lived in conditions not that different from those of their ancestors in the 19th century.
At this point in his career, RFK’s political reputation was for ruthlessness; he was John F. Kennedy’s hatchet man in the 1960 presidential campaign. But he had been shattered by his brother’s assassination. He could identify with people who were suffering.
So it was in eastern Kentucky — and the Mississippi Delta, the fields of California, the Indian reservations — where he established a political tradition that his family, his party and his country have never quite forgotten. Cynics called it a “poverty tour.’’
In two days, Kennedy traveled 200 miles, often over poorly paved, curving mountain roads, visiting places with names like Pippa Passes and Neon that had seldom seen anyone half as famous.
People slipped paper for autographs through the slit in his car window and held children up to see him over the crowds. He had to shake so many hands his grip lost all strength. “This was history,’’ says Dee Davis, who as a high school junior combed his hair like Kennedy and went to see him walk through Hazard’s black neighborhood. “You wanted to be part of it.’’
Jerry and James Aslinger, father and son, wait on the steps of the Letcher County courthouse. In 1968, Robert Kennedy spoke on the courthouse steps, drawing a large crowd to hear his remarks. The courthouse was remodeled in 1998. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)
In a speech outside the courthouse in Whitesburg, Kennedy acknowledged his Boston accent — “You must think I talk funny.’’ The crowd roared in recognition. Almost every one of them, at least once, had been told by an outsider, “You talk funny!’’
As his caravan was driving up one hollow, Kennedy saw a familiar Appalachian scene — two rusty old Fords sitting in a front yard. He shouted “Stop the car!’’ jumped out and walked over to a miner who was working under one of the cars. They began talking. After several minutes Kennedy returned to his own car, satisfied. Those cars weren’t abandoned, he said. One was being cannibalized for parts to keep the other one running so the miner could get to work. What appeared to be slovenliness was a response to scarcity.
“I don’t want to hear another word about how these people like having junk in their yards,’’ he said.
At a hearing in a high school gym, Kennedy heard the testimony of a man who claimed to have the largest family in the county. “Did you ever see 15 kids in three beds?’’ he asked. Kennedy, with 10 children of his own, replied, “I’m moving in that direction.’’
“I want to give you a little tip,’’ the man said. “The more children you’ve got, you just add a little water to the gravy.’’
Dee Davis, President of the Center for Rural Strategies, poses for a portrait at his home. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)
But hunger was no joke. In a speech later that day, Kennedy said: “I saw a family of six who have milk only one day a month. And many of the families we saw spend no more than 30 cents a day for a child for food.’’
“I love these people,’’ Kennedy told Greider. “It’s terrible to have all this in a country as affluent as ours.’’
Then he boarded a plane sent for him by the (Republican) governor that flew him to Louisville for dinner at the home of the family that owned the Courier-Journal. Hours after meeting children who got milk once a week, he was served filet mignon.
On March 16, Kennedy entered the presidential race. Two weeks later, Johnson said he would not seek re-election. Early on June 5, hours after he won the California primary, Kennedy was shot in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen while shaking hands with a Hispanic busboy. He died 24 hours later.
DJT in EKY
A view of downtown Hazard, Ky., on a hazy Saturday morning. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)
Nowhere was Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory more striking than eastern Kentucky, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans and people of both parties fondly recall the Kennedy brothers.
That includes two Republican Trump supporters: Tyler Ward, a 32-year-old lawyer whose father, a Democrat, is the chief executive of Letcher County, and Colin Fultz, 46, an entrepreneur whose father was elected magistrate as a Democrat.
Ward’s grandfather was a “yellow dog’’ Democrat (he’d vote for a yellow dog before a Republican) who always said that Democrats care about people and Republicans care about money. “But now it seems the roles have been reversed,’’ Ward says: Republicans care about people, like coal miners; Democrats care about intangibles, like climate change.
There’s bipartisan nostalgia for RFK. “I wish I’d have been here to meet him,’’ Fultz says. “He’d have been a great president. But he was an old-school Democrat. Democrats today aren’t like RFK and JFK.’’
How did Kennedy country become Trump country? The men would appear to share little more than a New York address and a Palm Beach tan.
Kennedy in 1968 promised to use government help people; Trump in 2016 promised to get government off their backs. Kennedy promised to help miners recover from what he described as the irreversible decline of coal; Trump promised to bring coal back.
Trump blamed others — immigrants, environmentalists, the Chinese — for America’s problems. Kennedy blamed Americans: “How can we allow this?’’ he asked of hunger here.
And neither would seem to be to the taste of mountain people, who, rendered cynical by many unmet political promises, “will tell you real quick to go kiss your ass,’’ says Steve Cawood, who as a young law student accompanied Kennedy.
But in 1968 and in 2016, these different politicians possessed — or projected — similar qualities that appealed to voters here, and in areas like it.
Celebrity. Although mountain people can be suspicious of outsiders, they felt they knew Kennedy before he came and knew Trump even though he came no closer than Huntington, W.Va. Their fame introduced them. “It was like meetin’ someone you know,’’ Jimmy Daryl Farler, a Barwick student, later recalled.
Authenticity. Each seemed to speak his mind — honestly, not eloquently. Kennedy had a high voice and could be tentative. Trump’s profanity offended Bible Belt ears, and he wandered off message. “They both seem unscripted’’ — and thus sincere, Dee Davis says.
Empathy. Despite their privileged backgrounds, each seemed to identify with the people of eastern Kentucky. “They didn’t view Kennedy as a liberal Democrat’’ or Trump as a conservative Republican, Tyler Ward says. “They viewed them as someone who cares about them.’’
But empathy takes many forms. To understand the political changes in the region, consider what Kennedy and Trump had to say about the region’s tragic hero: the coal miner.
In his industriousness, courage and stoicism, the miner personified Appalachia’s traditional self-sufficiency. His passing — there were 66,000 in Kentucky in 1948 and 6,000 today — has been as much a cultural and psychological shock as an economic one. Those who seem to abet it, or make light of it, do so at their political risk.
In 2016, perhaps hoping mountain people would appreciate straight talk, Hillary Clinton acknowledged that environmental policies would cost some miners their jobs. Most people here have not forgotten or forgiven.
Nell Fields, a Democrat who was 15 when she saw Kennedy, has reworded Clinton’s statement 100 times in her head to make it sound less offensive. “I’m sure she has, too,” she says.
Nell Fields, a community engagement specialist for the University of Kentucky, poses for a portrait on Main Street in Whitesburg. Fields attended Robert Kennedy’s congressional hearing in Neon, KY, when she was a freshman in high school. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)
But coal is only half the story. The other is eastern Kentucky’s dependence on government, which dates to the War on Poverty. Public spending on everything from food stamps to disability to Medicaid is all that sustains a place once famous for its suspicion of charity.
To displaced miners, Kennedy promised help, with this caveat: “What can be done to end welfare in the region, and replace it with jobs? … Welfare is no answer. Jobs is the answer.’’
But 50 years later, with eastern Kentucky a virtual welfare reservation, Trump’s promise to bring back coal was really an offer of something even more important: self-sufficiency and self-respect.
50 years later, mixed progress
Bonnie Jean Carroll poses for a portrait outside Barwick School. Carroll was a teacher at the school in 1968, when Robert Kennedy visited the school and spoke with each student individually. (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)
Fifty years later, eastern Kentucky is more prosperous. Fewer than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line, compared with more than half 50 years ago. There are four-lane highways, regional hospitals and Wal-Marts.
But the six counties Kennedy visited are among the sickest in one of the nation’s sickest states, and an epicenter of the opioid epidemic. Rates of premature death and infant mortality are roughly twice the nation’s.
Many of the kids in the Barwick class that Kennedy visited had to move away to find work. Several who stayed died of drug overdoses. One killed himself.
The schoolhouse was closed in the early ’70s and today is a ruin; the county librarian calls Barwick itself “almost a mountain ghost town.’’
Recently, Bonnie Jean Carroll, who taught the class, returned to visit the school. She’s 82, a lifelong Democrat. She thinks about Kennedy and what might have been: “He was concerned about us. He wanted to help. If he’d survived …’’
She looks at a photo of her class and sees all the missing faces.
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