Several years ago, I had the opportunity to travel through West Virginia, the home of one of my all time favorite Senators: the awe-inspiring Robert C. Byrd. Senator Byrd was arguably the best orator the United States Senate has ever had grace the halls of Congress. His speeches could thunder through the halls of the Senate. His voice reverberated across the aisle and into the hearts of America. His passion for America, the Constitution and West Virginia knew no bounds.
Robert Byrd became a U.S. Senator the year that I became a person. I was born just a few months after he was elected to the Senate and he captured my attention from the moment I knew he existed. Senator Byrd loved many things. He loved his high school sweetheart Erma that became his wife of 69 years. He loved his two daughters and the beautiful families they brought to him. He loved the Constitution of the United States. He loved America and all it stood for. He loved the Senate and proudly served our country for 57 years. He loved his role as a public servant entrusted with the care and protection of the people of West Virginia. And he loved Hillary Clinton.
I believe in this great and beautiful country. I have studied its roots. I have gloried in the wisdom of its magnificent Constitution, and its inimitable history. I have marveled at the wisdom of its founders and its framers. Generation after generation of Americans has understood the lofty ideals that underlie our great Republic. I have been inspired by the story of their sacrifice and their strength. Robert Byrd Prepared speech opposing Iraq War, March 19, 2003.
There were things he didn’t like. He hated the war in Iraq. He despised those who would blend church and state into a theocracy barren of the values of the Founding Fathers. He despised politicians that promised things they could not deliver because he knew it hurt the people he served. He regretted his brief stint in the KKK and his votes against Civil Rights and Voting Rights. He didn’t particularly like being wrong, but he never tried to hide from his mistakes, or failed to do the right thing when he saw his mistake.
As I traveled through West Virginia all those years ago, I was struck by the stark demands of the Earth itself. It was as if she were saying, “I shall give you nothing unless you work hard, harder than others.” “I shall give you nothing unless you suffer for each inch of your survival.” “I am beautiful, but harsh.” “If you can survive in West Virginia, you can accomplish anything in this life.” I was struck by the life force of West Virginia and awed by the people that live there.
Soon West Virginians will be asked to select a candidate that represents them. Not just in the primaries but in the general election.
There is Donald Trump who has been traveling through the state promising to bring coal back to America. Promising to bring jobs in the coal mines back. Promising the moon if the people will just put stars in their eyes. There are campaign ads by Trump and his supporters showing Hillary Clinton kissing Robert Byrd proclaiming she supports his bigotry and racial hatred. Donald Trump calling Clinton and Byrd racists and bigots is the epitomy of irony.
Yes Robert Byrd was in the KKK, before World War II happened. As Biography.com quoted, “He described the organization as a group of “upstanding people”—doctors, lawyers, clergy, judges—who he thought could “provide an outlet for [his] talents and ambitions.” These were not gang members in a poverty stricken metropolis, these were the pillars of society in a small town in West Virginia. He apologized until the day he died and he never shied away from admitting his mistake and asking forgiveness for being “sorely afflicted with tunnel vision-a jejune and immature outlook…”.
There is Bernie Sanders proclaiming millionaires and billionaires are responsible for the suffering of ordinary families in America. That Wall Street is responsible for the collapse of the middle class and reminding everyone that Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War. But he does not say out loud that under no circumstances does he support coal mining or the use of coal in his plan to combat climate change. You will never hear him say, I support West Virginia and I will help you get your mining jobs back.
Then there is Hillary Clinton looking you in the eye and saying coal mines will be shut down and workers will lose their jobs. Looking you in the eye and saying if she is elected, she will ask for 30 billion dollars for West Virginia to help coal miners and their families deal with the harsh reality that coal is no longer the fuel of the future. That the jobs your father and grandfather worked will no longer be available. Standing before booing crowds and pledging to work to bring new jobs, new technologies, clean coal and workers rights to West Virginia. Damn that woman.
Dear West Virginia, you have a choice. You can believe a snake oil salesman. Sounds good. Looks good. Tells you exactly what you want to hear. Promises what you know in your heart cannot be true. You, however, are a West Virginians. You are survivors; and survivors recognize snake oil when they see it.
You can agree that millionaires and billionaires ruined the economy in the United States in 2009 and they continue to threaten ordinary Americans every day. But you have been dealing with coal bosses for decades and you know the harsh truth of real work vs. reality. You know that the millionaires and billionaires that run the coal mines can now top a mountain without putting a single soul underground to mine for that coal. You know that the shareholders won’t vote to keep you working if they can save your wages and pilfer your pension. You know that Wall Street may pose a threat to America, but West Virginia has real problems to face. You know the dirty little secret that he does not have your backs.
Then there is that damn woman. The one who told you to your face that no one was going to keep your job as a coal miner. No one was going to promote traditional coal as a viable energy in the 21st century. The woman that told you she heard you. She saw you. She understood your pain and your struggle. The one that stood with Joe Manchion and pledged she would work to bring 30 billion (with a “B”) to West Virginia. Not to mine coal but to retrain you so you didn’t have to rely on the coal bosses to give you your jobs back. Not to increase old coal production, but to bring clean coal forward. Not to promise you snake oil, and charm you into blaming rich people for your problems. No. She told you she would work in your back yard. In your home towns. In your communities to bring change. Damn that woman.
Robert Byrd took Hillary Clinton under his wing. He mentored her and coached her and imbued her with his passion for our country and our Constitution. He shared his passion for West Virginia with her. When he died, it was Hillary Clinton that created a video to honor him, his life and his love for West Virginia. Now those snake oil salesmen and hecklers title that eulogy “Bill and Hillary Clinton Euolgise (sic) Former KKK Leader Robert Byrd” as if their own self-loathing can taint the name of Robert Byrd and wash away 57 years of outstanding public service.
No one can tell you what to do on Tuesday. No one has to. If you look yourself in the eye you will know there is only one person that did not lie to you. Just like your Nanna that told you the truth you did not want to hear. She told you out of love for you. She told you out of respect for you. She told you because she knew it did not serve you to fool yourself. You may have been mad at her for telling you, but you knew she was right. Nanna never lied because the truth matters.
It is with the utmost respect that I send this article to you West Virginia. It is because I had the honor of traveling through your state and experiencing the stature of your people. It is because I watched for my entire life one of the greatest statesman of all time speak on your behalf. It is because I know the pain and sorrow and grief you feel knowing the lives as you know them must now change, that I wrote this article. You can choose a shister, or an idealist with no plan, or a person who actually stood up and said we can do this together. That choice is entirely yours. Be angry. Be frustrated. Grieve for what you wish were true. But in the end, look into the faces of your children and choose the future, not the past. Choose reality with all of its warts and uncertainty and show America what hope truly looks like. There is only one choice that will bring you forward. I pray you find the inner strength to know that even when it hurt, Nanna never lied and neither did that damn woman named Hillary.