By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
The heart of Appalachia is not Obama country, but it is Democratic in the New Deal sense of that word. The rugged terrain of West Virginia's coal mining towns is rock-solid blue Byrd country--as in Senator Robert C. Byrd, 92, who used to play folk songs on his fiddle as he campaigned. Songs like "Let the Circle Be Unbroken."
Sunday afternoon, the president came to pay a grave condolence call on the grief-stricken community of the 29 miners who died in a disastrous blast at the Upper Big Branch mine on Easter Monday. Just by showing up at the memorial service, Obama showed up the president who dipped the wing of Air Force One over the devastation wrought by a hurricane named Katrina in 2005; while Washington slept, New Orleans wept. More importantly, by being there, Obama nationalized the mourning. He spoke the words of the 23rd Psalm, with its starkly apt passage on walking through the valley of the shadow of death. He also signaled his sympathy for the working man; all 29 were men who died in the line of a dangerous duty. That was a good old-fashioned Democratic thing to do in these times, when the nation might be rocked by a populist undercurrent any minute. There was no better ground to stand on than true blue West Virginia, the "Daughter of the Rebellion," the only state that became a state during the Civil War because the former "Virginians" who lived up in the hills refused to secede from the Union.
Obama seems to be waking up from his dream of bipartisan harmony to realize it is the salt of the earth he can count on, if he is there for them. The speech he gave in Beckley, W. Va., appropriately did not touch on clean coal or higher industry safety standards--though even a viewer could sense the anger at the mine owner, Massey Energy. By the usual standards, the speech was workmanlike with a phrase holding up the American dream--which those 29 miners worked in darkness to achieve, Obama said.
Heartbroken people don't need fancy words, not with 29 crosses, each topped with a miner's hat. Obama smartly kept it simple, straight and short, all of 10 minutes. Probably the most comforting words he spoke at the service were that our collective hearts are "aching" for you, with you. He received a resounding welcome with the ailing Senator Byrd himself in the house. The circle in West Virginia stays unbroken in the most unexpected of ways.
Remembrance of the coal miners was not necessarily political. But anything the president chooses to do is a form of political performance art. Ronald Reagan taught Obama's generation that. Just by being there, Obama spoke volumes.