For those who grew up in West Virginia during any one of Gov. Arch Moore’s three terms in office, the effect of his pep talk speeches is hard to forget.
Moore made a young person attending a summer conference at Jackson’s Mill feel proud to be a West Virginian — no easy feat when one hears so many West Virginia jokes or “50th in the nation” reports in the news.
One could easily go away thinking, “If a man like that believes in West Virginia, so can I.” Best of all, Moore suggested that each of us had a role to play in building West Virginia’s future.
Then he had to go and get in trouble with the law and was sent to federal prison for a little over two years. The great cheerleader apparently had other activities going on besides giving inspiring speeches to impressionable young West Virginians.
So what happens when the charismatic leader who got you to feel better about yourself and your culture goes away, for whatever reason? People can get too dependent on the positive strokes they get from one person. At some point, we need to fly on our own.
The West Virginia Republican Party had several years in the wilderness after Moore’s fall from grace. He had built the West Virginia Republican Party up as essentially an Arch Moore Party. So, when he left the scene, many in the party were without direction.
I well remember serving as a volunteer in the ill-fated Cleve Benedict gubernatorial campaign in 1992. Benedict was and is a good man, a former congressman who, in later years, used his own private airplane to take people to needed medical facilities far away.
He was articulate, a graduate of Princeton University and had managed something rare in those days: getting elected as a Republican to statewide office, agriculture commissioner.
A young Democrat friend told me that, if enough people could meet Cleve Benedict face to face, he’d win in a landslide for governor, even against the incumbent, Gaston Caperton.
Whatever actual chance Benedict had was swept away by one particular ad that ran during the middle of that general election campaign that fall. Benedict was well-known among political observers for being nowhere near Moore’s third administration. He was untouched by the scandal afterwards that sent Moore to federal prison.
However, before his term in Congress in the early 1980s, Benedict had served in some appointed positions way back in Moore’s first two terms in office during the 1970s. He was seen then as he was as agriculture commissioner — competent and never associated with scandal of any kind.
But in order to take Benedict down, ads were run, with the camera zooming in not on Benedict’s face, but Moore’s. A deep voice with sinister tones completed the hit on Benedict, saying that the state didn’t need to go down that road again.
Thus, the implication was that a vote for Benedict, a lieutenant for Moore 20 years before, was a vote to bring back the Moore’s corruption.
The ad was unfair, but it seemed to work. Caperton creamed Benedict on Election Day by a margin of 56% to 36%, with Charlotte Pritt garnering 7% as a write-in that year.
Caperton’s incumbency certainly helped in 1992, and there might have been other factors that led to his blowout victory that year. But the guilt-by-association ad featuring Moore was a body blow to Benedict, whose only sin was serving well in prior Moore administrations.
Political parties can live or die based on whom the public, as a whole, associates them with, especially at top levels. In politics, appearances are everything.
Both parties have some fellow travelers today that make them look bad to the public. But most recently, Trump supporters are the ones who should be scandalized by those cranks who decided to storm the U.S. Capitol in the name of Trump. The Democrats are not likely to let them forget it in future elections.
When the rank and file of a political party wake up and remember that future elections are won by attracting support beyond one’s base, perhaps these unsavory types will be shown the door permanently.