Night Comes to the Appalachians

Coal River

by Michael Shnayerson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 321 pp., $25.00

In the May 13 Democratic primary in West Virginia, Barack Obama, despite having practically sewn up his party’s nomination the previous week with a win in North Carolina and a narrow loss in Indiana, suffered his largest defeat of the primary season, losing to Hillary Clinton by 67 to 26 percent. Obama at least had the sense to anticipate the result, and therefore spent almost no time in the state, although his lone speaking appearance in Charleston, the capital, remains memorable as the moment when he again started wearing a US flag lapel pin (this was about a month after the ABC debate in which he was asked about his failure to do so).

The results from the state’s fifty-five counties read like electoral margins from the old Eastern bloc, especially in some of the counties between Charleston and the Virginia and Kentucky borders to the south—the deep, dark core of coal country. In Boone County, Clinton won by 79 to 14 percent, in Logan County 84 to 11 percent. In Mingo County, it was 88 to 8 percent. In Wyoming County (79 to 10 percent), John Edwards, whose name was on the ballot but who had not been an active candidate for nearly four months, came within sixty votes of beating Obama to finish second. I thought Obama might carry Monongalia, the county in which I was born and raised, which is home to the large state university (28,000 students). But Clinton won there 55 to 38 percent. Only in Jefferson County, the state’s easternmost, which has a much smaller university and has lately been infiltrated by ex-Washingtonians looking for inexpensive real estate, did Obama come within single digits, losing 49 to 46 percent.

The crushing defeat led to a spasm of warnings about Obama’s chances in November against John McCain. How could he compete, some experts wondered, after performing so miserably among the white working class in so reliably Democratic a state as West Virginia? Maureen Dowd, in her post-mortem on the primary, reproved Obama for “acting the diffident debutante, pretending not to care that he was given a raspberry by a state he will need in the fall.” Many pundits said much the same.

These analysts do not understand that West Virginia has changed. It is much more culturally Southern and conservative than in my youth. It is no longer a Democratic state in presidential politics, and has not been since it backed George W. Bush in 2000. Dowd quoted Charlie Peters, the founding editor of The Washington Monthly and a native son who worked on John Kennedy’s famous 1960 primary victory there, which demonstrated that a Catholic could win a Protestant state. Peters argued that the 96 percent white state could prove open to the mixed-race candidate: “The point of West Virginia in 1960 is that you can change attitudes,” he said. But the West Virginia of 1960 was a very different place from the West Virginia …

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