Sixty years ago this June, President John F. Kennedy came to West Virginia for a celebration of the state’s centennial. Despite the rain, an estimated 10,000 people stood in the State Capitol courtyard to see and hear Kennedy.
The bad weather prompted the president to shorten his planned 20-minute speech to just 3 minutes and 20 seconds, but the words he spoke were impactful. “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do,” said Kennedy.
That famous line was literal because of the rain, but also metaphorical. Kennedy traveled the hills and hollows of the Mountain State for weeks prior to the 1960 primary election. His victory here propelled him to the Democratic Party nomination and the presidency.
He witnessed firsthand the poverty and the hardships of West Virginians, but he also looked deeper and saw the inherent goodness of our people.
“It has known sunshine and rain in 100 years, but I know of no state — and I know this state well — whose people feel more strongly, who have a greater sense of pride in themselves, in their state and their country, than the people of West Virginia,” he said that day.
This is how we see our aspirational selves — proud, loyal, faithful and possessing a propriety that requires us to help others, whether they be family, friends or strangers. We are guided by what President Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
At the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4, former President Donald Trump gave a speech where he sought to appeal to voters in the 2024 election. “In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution,” he said.
Retribution conjures up feelings of punishment and suffering for one’s enemies. It suggests that if we can just get even, a wrong will have been righted and we will feel better.
The concept is foreboding, and it appeals to a basic survivalist instinct. For some, retribution is a salve for wounds, real and imagined.
But I do not want to believe that is who we are as West Virginians. Kennedy saw firsthand the poverty, the suffering, the hardship, but he looked deeper and saw a spark, the light of goodness, that strong sense of virtue that is our true selves.
We are all neighbors, bound together by a sense of pride in being West Virginians. And with that comes a sense of responsibility to follow the guidance of our ancestors in the ways we treat others. The hand we extend is to help, not hurt.
Donald Trump remains popular in West Virginia. He will likely get the votes of most Republicans in the 2024 presidential primary and, if he is nominated, carry the state in the general election. Trump has said and done many things that appeal to most West Virginians.
But for the West Virginians that Kennedy came to know, retribution is not an impulse to admire in a president.