CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Experts this week identified a dreadful disease they say invaded West Virginia and is spreading its deadly poison everywhere. The experts gave the disease a name. It is called fear.
The sickness is said to have taken root deep in the coalfields and spread like wildfire throughout the state leaving entire communities in shambles and deep despair. There is a cure for the illness, the experts say, but few West Virginians seem willing to take the medicine. Left untreated, they say, the infection is capable of widespread destruction, particularly among traditional Democrats. Already the ailment has transformed thousands of Democrats into crypto-Republicans who seem certain to destroy themselves and their families by abandoning the legacy of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
On West Virginia's 100th birthday in 1963, President Kennedy stood in a pouring rain on the statehouse steps in Charleston to proclaim that "The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do." The people of West Virginia, most of them Democrats, propelled JFK into the White House by overcoming their religious fundamentalism to cast ballots overwhelmingly for the first Catholic ever to become president. That may have been West Virginia's finest hour.
Today, a majority of West Virginia Democrats, sickened by fear and loathing, are on the verge of casting aside their proud heritage as humane Democrats to cast their lot with Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan. All the polls show that it is so. And the upshot may be West Virginia's most regrettable hour. Here's why:
Despite unmitigated evidence for decades that coal mining was playing out as the state's number one private industry, Democrats have allowed themselves to be infected by Republicans and their coal company sponsors with the contemptible idea that President Obama is waging a war against them. The fallacious idea is so pervasive and effective that outstanding Democrats Joe Manchin, Nick Rahall and Earl Ray Tomblin skipped the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte to appease their purulent political base. Only Jay Rockefeller fearlessly attended. And despite years of yeoman-like service to his political party and his fellow citizens, Rockefeller is in trouble politically for combating his party's infection by opposing the coal companies.
Blinded by the illness, most Democrats refuse to recognize that Wal-Mart, not coal, is the number one private industry in West Virginia. From a peak of 126,000 coal miners in 1948, coal mining employs fewer than 25,000 in the state today. Mechanization of the industry, not the EPA and President Obama, is largely responsible for the need for fewer and fewer miners.
And there is another, treacherous side effect of the party's disorder. By allowing themselves to fall into the trap that promises erroneously the revitalization of coal, Democrats risk losing much of the health care they need so desperately. Medicaid and Medicare, vital to an aging population in the state, will be in grave danger in a Romney administration. Seniors and their families, dependent on nursing home care, may find that they are barred under the Romney plan. Yet it seems Democrats prefer to remain sick rather than take the medicine that will make them whole again.
A symptom of just how sick the party is can be seen in Charleston where a few enlightened Democrats who remember the honored times of FDR and JFK have set up shop under the banner of WV Forward. And for their brave public support of President Obama they are being taunted and threatened by pro-Romney Democrats who chant hurtfully, "Socialist" and "Communist" and "N----- lover." This may be West Virginia's most regrettable hour.
Rabel, of Alum Creek, is a retired Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist formerly with NBC and CBS.