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John Warner

Surprise, surprise. Gazette journalist Ken Ward Jr., investigating the Sago mine disaster, discovered that regulations set by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration — that body created in 1969 by the strong congressional leadership of Ken Hechler — have quietly been scuttled by our good “Christian” president, George Bush, Republican.

Under the banner of deregulation, this Republican administration has repeatedly attacked the rules which govern our mines and our industries, calling them “Gestapo” guidelines, and has invested its trust in the interests of those who own our mines, our industries, our workplaces. The Sago mine was a safe place to work, says mine owner Ben Hatfield.

I remember a line from “War and Peace.” The peasants, trying to eke out a meager living on the Russian steppes, completely adored the Russian Czar. The czar was God’s representative on Earth, assigned by the Great Almighty to serve as the loving father to the Russian people. The peasants were starving, suffering from disease, fatigue and from the cold Siberian winds. Oh, if the czar only knew how we suffer. To which Tolstoy notes, the czar knew only too well. And he cared not a whit. Remind you of someone? Remind you of New Orleans? Remind you of the body armor our soldiers in Iraq are supposed to wear? Remind you of Sago?

Nobody likes rules. Nothing sounds nicer than “deregulation.” So what do you think? On Sept. 11, 2001, we had hundreds of rules for airport safety. But they were not enforced. Security guards at Logan and Dulles Airports approved the passage of Mohammad Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and 17 other members of al-Qaida and friends of Osama bin Laden.

This is what is meant by the simple term “deregulation.” Don’t make us wear seat belts. Don’t make us wear motorcycle helmets. Don’t set speed limits. And don’t make the coal mines observe safety rules, either. Let us smoke where we want. And hunt when we want. And burn our autumn leaves when and where we want.

Deregulation is a catchword spoken by GOP legislators when they want to lighten up on the rules protecting workers and consumers of American industry, commerce and transportation. “That government is best which governs least,” comes the voice from the political right. Don’t tell us how to run the Sago Mine. Don’t tell us how to build the Pinto, comes the voice of the Ford Motor Company. Don’t tell us about coal dust and black lung. Those dirty black lungs come from smoking too much, not from coal dust.

Don’t tell us how to build a dam, comes the voice of coal from Buffalo Creek. Don’t tell us how to dig coal, comes a voice from Farmington. Don’t tell us how to run an airline, comes a voice from Logan Airport. Don’t tell us how to handle chemicals, comes a voice from Bhopal. And don’t tell us how to raise money for political campaigns, comes a voice from Republican House members working with majority leader Tom DeLay — including Shelley Moore Capito.

I often complain that Republicans represent the rich and the very rich. One of my friends pointed out that many Democrats are wealthy, too. “Take Jay Rockefeller or Edward Kennedy, for instance,” he says. That misses the point. I do not complain that there are rich people in the world. I complain that Republicans devote their entire legislative lives to the enhancement of the rich at the expense of the poor. The Kennedys and the Rockefellers have been responsible stewards, and in Congress they represent those of us who are not as well off as they. And there are many like them. Not so in the Republican Party.

Our GOP government is no friend of the middle class. No friend of the poor. The Republican Party has never in my lifetime been a friend of the common fellow. Let us step back about 40 years. Medicare came into being under Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

You could peruse the voting records year after year and find only that same thing. The interests of the Republican Party are with the rich, not the middle class or the poor. It is no surprise that our dear “Christian” President whittled away the safeguards those miners needed in Sago. He’s a Republican. What do you expect?

I say this because I study voting records in Congress. It is no aberration of Republican ideology that Bush relaxes the rules for coal mine safety. If you work for a living, the Republican Party is not your friend.

I add a footnote: Gov. Joe Manchin, planning a really exciting evening watching the West Virginia University Mountaineers defeat the Georgia Bulldogs, returned immediately to West Virginia and to the Sago Baptist Church in our brokenhearted little county. He and Mrs. Manchin spent hour after hour with the families of the 13 coal miners — during and after the crisis. Like the Russian czar, Gov. Manchin knew only too well how these families suffered. But unlike that czar, our governor and his wife came to share their suffering with them. Thanks, Joe. Thanks, Gayle.

Dr. Warner, professor emeritus at West Virginia Wesleyan College, is a Gazette contributing columnist.


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