Almost every night now in this the year of the tax revolt, the Democratic Party faithful gather in some aging West Virginia courthouse to heap praise on Sen. Jennings Randolph as one of the last of the big spenders, the king of the nation's pork barrel.
It is a ritual as old as hill country politics. The sheriff and county clerk are always there. So are the county commissioners, state legislators, the county road crew, and a few precinct captains, worried about how much money they'll have to pass out to "workers" on election day.
They come not to condemn Randolph for taking their tax dollars, but to bless him for bringing them back to West Virginia. "If he isn't reelected, there'll be hell to pay," state Sen. Ralph Williams declared here the other night. "If he isn't up there doling it out, I hate to think what will happen to the projects we need in Dothan, or Kincaid, or Mossy Creek, or Page."
There was a time when these affairs were considered high entertainment. Crowds would pack the courthouses in Fayette, McDowell, Logan, and the dozens of other counties that have voted Democratic as long as anyone can remember.
But television and welfare have changed that.
Now the crowds are small: the old passion is gone. And party stalwarts are worried about Randolph, whom they first sent to Congress in 1932. "I certainly hope the party won't let him down after all he's done for us," bemoans John Witt, mayor this town of 2,500.
The election here is a battle of the pork barrel as much as anything else. It asks an unusual question in this, the year of Proposition 13:
Who has delivered the most bacon? Or more kindly, who has build the most highways, bridges, airports, dams, libraries and assorted other public works projects? Randolph or his opponent, former governor Arch A. Moore Jr., one of the most popular Republicans in state history.
Randolph claims he has, as chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee. Moore, a two-term governor before he was succeeded by Gov. Jay Rockefeller, claims he has.
If this sounds a little strange, it is because this is not your run-of-the-mill Senate race. Randolph, one of his party's oldest warhorses, is in the fight of his life. It is one that questions not only whether his liberalism is out of step with the times, but also his ability to serve at age 76, his record and his very dignity.
Randolph is among the last of the old New Dealers, the only man now in Congress who was there during Franklin Roosevelt's historic first 100 days in office.
He is still a true believer, one of the few politicians in the nation this year to proclaim that deficit spending isn't a deadly sin and tax money should be spent to help people.
His New York media adviser, David Garth, has designed a campaign that portrays Randolph as a Santa Claus figure who has done a little something for everyone in West Virginia. "When you deliver like Randolph delivers, you don't have to promise anything," boast his ads.
Washington is doing everything it can to encourage this perception. President Carter and Vice President Mondale each have been here twice. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose family name is magic in these hills, also stopped by last week. And almost every day a grant for a new sewer, airport or medical program emerges from the federal bureaucracy under Randolph's name.
However, there are high risks in the politics of park barrel.
None of them has escaped Moore, a spellbinding orator and cunning campaigner who has won all but one of the 22 elections he has entered, including six terms in the U.S. House. He pooh-poohs Randolph's claims.
Moore says he's the guy who build the roads Randolph brags about. "A U.S. senator never built a highway, a U.S. senator never built a bridge, a U.S. senator never built a library," he proclaims. "Governors build things."
"When you deliver like Arch Moore," he adds, "you don't have to advertise."
Moore, of course, does advertise. One of his television ads pictures the Taj Mahal and the great pyramids of Egypt. "If you believe Sen. Randolph built these, then you'll believe his television commercials," a voice says. Another ad declares: "A senator spent 34 years in Washington and all there is to show for it is now your routine federal tax dollars were spent. And the truth is, we didn't get more than a pauper's share."
At 55, Moore is a generation younger than Randolph. Yet he seldom mentions "the age issue," except to say that Randolph is running simply to keep the Senate seat warm for Democratic Gov. Rockefeller.
There's feeling he doesn't have to talk about age.Randolph's primary opponent, Sharon Rogers 33, did about as much damage as possible. A political unknown, she called Randolph "our senile senator," and formed a campaign group with the indelicate name, "The Committee to Dump the Tub of Lard." She won a Surprising 20 percent of the primary vote.
Randolph has lost 20 pounds since then, and appears energetic on the stump. But in an age when candidates are expected to look like TV anchormen, he's a throwback to another era.
Randolph "is a cartoonist's dream," states clipping which his own campaign distributes to visitors because of its ultimately laudatory tone. "Portly, verbose, a gladhander, rarely critical of anyone or anything, once called 'the ultimate Rotarian, sometimes pompous, sometimes humble, he could be the perfect caricature of a senator."
He is a man reluctant to attack even his arch enemies. His campaign manager, Thornton Berry, a former state Supreme Court judge, is his street fighter. Moore, he says, "is an arrogant egomaniac, a total political animal who will say anything to get elected."
Beery has tried to capitalize on what some observers feel is Moore's greatest weakness - "the integrity issue." He has demanded that Moore explain why he kept $180,000 in cash in his desk while he was governor, explain what happened to $20,000 in cash that Ashland Oil allegedly delivered to Moore as governor, and assorted other alleged misdeeds.
Moore was acquitted of charges of taking of $25,000 campaign contribution in return for a promise to help the donor get a state bank charter. He maintains integrity is not an issue in the race. When asked about it, he states: "After all, you do believe in the American system of justice? Don't you?"
Randolph's campaign is a sentimental journey. His life has spanned most of the modern Democratic Party era, and Randolph, who attended his first Democratic convention in 1912, has been in the front lines for much of it, serving in Congress under eight presidents. "Presidents come and go. I just want to keep going," he says.
Randolph has seldom wavered in his support of New Deal goals. And this fall, hardly a speech goes by without Randolph boasting how he introduced the first interstate highway bill during the 1940s. Or that he was one of the chief architects of the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration, which have pumped millions into West Virginia. Or that his post as chairman of the Public Works Committee is one of the most powerful jobs in Washington.
A visit Randolp made to Williamson, the seat of Mingo County, however, showed that clout and seniority are a double-edged sword in politics.
It was the kind of day a politician dreams about. There was a ground-breaking for a $7.8 million water system, the sort of event Randolph relishes. He'd used the occasion to proclaim "the dawn of a new era," and remind everyone that he had more than a little to do in getting the federal dollars for the project.
But at a luncheon a copy of a front page editiorial in the Williamson Daily News are placed before him.
It bitterly accused Randolph and fellow West Virginia Democrat Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, of ignoring local pleas for flood protection after a flood devastated the area in the spring of 1977.
Randolph became livid. His heavy jowls shook with indignation. His fist pounded the table as he launched a 30-minute defense of his efforts to secure a $100 million floor protection project for the area.
"If I become a little emotional," he said. "I think you should forgive me because I have not been sitting idly by."