CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Those who know me see me as the proud son of West Virginia, born and reared in Appalachia and instructed in the lore of the southern coalfields. Mine is an all-American story of a lad born in poverty and enriched in a world-wide experience, one who comes back to rediscover his roots on Rabel Mountain. For those who do not know me, I introduce myself simply as a fellow Democrat, a member of the biggest disorganized political party man has ever known.
John F. Kennedy said this: "The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do." Kennedy said those words standing in a pouring rain on the statehouse steps in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1963. I was there, too, on the 100th birthday of our illustrious state. Kennedy became President in large part because West Virginia Democrats voted for him in the primary to show the nation that a Catholic could win even among a population in which religious fundamentalism was rampant. That may have been West Virginia's finest hour.
Since then, many Democrats in West Virginia have changed their stripes. No longer are they the honored captains of the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson and William Jefferson Clinton and, yes, Barack Hussein Obama. No longer do they represent the party of ferocity in war, compassion in peace and hope for the future. In the past, Democrats always led the way on the front lines for civil rights and as the pioneers to reach for the stars by putting a man on the moon. Today we Democrats are losing ground in the ageless struggle to do what is right.
If our history is any guide, we should be trumpeting the rights of the working man, promoting diversity both in human rights and in the economy and jumping on the bandwagon for an environment free of pollution and the cancer it causes. If we would be true to ourselves, we should be forestalling the endless theft of our patrimony by those outside our state who bear us nothing but ill will. If we truly pay homage to our founding as Mountaineers Always Free, we would be about the business of freedom -- freedom from a one-dimensional economy, freedom from the tyranny of political corruption in state and local government and freedom to choose progressive leaders to spur us on in the 21st century.
Instead, we are falling victim, once again, to antiquated shibboleths predicated on fear and hopelessness promoted mainly by fossil fuel lobbyists whose only interest is that of their corporate bosses. If they tell you they have your interest at heart, best you head for the hills. If their message is one of hatred and racism, best tell them to get lost. For you and I know that we are better than that.
Our state and our people are known not for intolerance. West Virginia is known not for laziness. Its workers are some of the best and most productive in the world. When called to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we know how to do that. We can produce energy for the world better and faster than anyone else. We can produce talent we can be proud of: Chuck Yeager, Robert Byrd, Pearl Buck, Don Knotts, Jerry West, Walter Reuther and Mary Lou Retton just to name a few. And we owe it to them and to ourselves not to dishonor them by allowing ourselves to become pedestrian, mere followers of the commonplace.
I come not today to try to change political minds. For, if I am not mistaken, many Democrats in the state already have their minds made up for Mitt Romney in the belief that he would champion their cause by turning back the tide of environmental protection. In their view, global warming is a myth to be discredited. Never mind that at least 6,000 scientists avow that the earth is heating up and the oceans are rising up.
The truth is, we are living in a season of myths -- that the national budget can be balanced by giving tax breaks to the rich; that the female body has a way of shutting down conception in what the mythmakers call a "legitimate rape;" that Israel can avoid global war by attacking Iran. Why should any rational person believe the mythmakers are telling the truth about the future of fossil fuels and the jobs that might be produced if only the so-called war on coal can be ended? In the words of president Obama, "That's the biggest whopper of them all."
Here are the facts:
• Employment in West Virginia coalmines is down from 126,000 in 1948 to fewer than 25,000 today.
• The biggest private employer in West Virginia is Wal-Mart, not coal.
• Natural gas production in West Virginia is competing with coal in the production of energy.
• Mechanization and modernization in coal mining through mountaintop removal, in part, means fewer miners are required to do the job. Hence layoffs occur because coal companies do not need as many miners as before to dig the coal out of the mountains.
• Since 1950, West Virginia has lost 40 percent of its population. Instead of five Congressional districts, we're down to three.
• The Kanawha Valley lost its chemical company dynamism long ago.
• A modern, international airport to provide thousands of jobs was nixed by local politicians fearful of losing their fiefdoms.
You have the ability to separate fact from fiction. West Virginians, traditionally, have resisted being buffaloed. We are a proud people who do not like to have the wool pulled over our eyes. Too often, in the past, big shots and crooked politicians and religious fanatics have tried. But failed. We sent them to jail for their lies. We did not tolerate them then. And we, as good Democrats, should not tolerate them now.
Now we have work to do. If we, as Democrats, return to our revered foundation forged in the annals of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.
Rabel, of Alum Creek, is an Emmy-winning retired broadcaster formerly with CBS and NBC. This commentary is a condensed excerpt from a speech he gave on Saturday at the Charleston Teamsters Hall.