West Virginia’s Governor is famously unscripted. Jim Justice’s inclination to speak off-the-cuff often produces refreshingly candid insights into his thinking.
The practice can also result in the state’s Chief Executive inserting his sizable foot in his mouth.
Justice stepped away from his daily briefing Wednesday to take a call from President Trump. “I wanted him to know just how welcome he is in West Virginia,” Justice said of Trump. “Any president, you know, we should welcome all but—maybe not Barack Obama. Nevertheless, we’ll welcome any president.”
As our Brad McElhinny reported, “Justice laughed as he made the statement, but the line about America’s first black president came as the nation is under enormous tension about race relations.”
You can give Justice the benefit of the doubt and accept that he is folksy and just joking. Obama was never very popular in West Virginia and Justice, like many West Virginians, me included, disagreed strongly with the Obama administration’s policies on coal.
But it was still a tactless comment at the worst possible time given the heightened racial tensions in the country.
President Obama visited West Virginia three times during his presidency. His 2010 visit to Charleston was significant because of the purpose—he came to eulogize Senator Robert Byrd.
Think about that—the first black president travels here to pay tribute to a man who once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.
Byrd’s legacy was always stained by his affiliation with the Klan in the early 1940’s. “I displayed very bad judgment due to immaturity and a lack of seasoned reasoning,” he wrote in his autobiography Child of the Appalachian Coal Fields.”
In his eulogy, Obama gave Senator Byrd credit for growing and maturing. “As I reflect on the full sweep of his 92 years, it seems to be that his life bent toward justice,” Obama said.
“Like the Constitution he tucked in his pocket, like our nation itself, Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality, and that is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, a capacity to be made more perfect.”
Governor Justice claims that no one loves West Virginia more than he does. He has often used the bully pulpit of his office to send out welcoming messages about our state. As West Virginians, we pride ourselves on being good neighbors and keeping our door open for visitors (except during a pandemic).
President John Kennedy set the bar high for us when he said, “The sun may not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.” That is our unofficial credo, and it is not always easy to live up to.
However, if we want to embrace our capacity to be more perfect, then all must be welcome.