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Manchin the flamboyant, Manchin the partisan buffer

I told some friends the other day to watch West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin very closely over the next months, as he will be the new power broker of the U.S. Senate.

As I was sharing with them that information, I couldn’t help but smile as I reflected back many years ago to my professional relationship with Manchin’s uncle, A. James Manchin.

A. James would have loved to see the role his nephew is playing now.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin is a political “centralist” who seems to have a clear head on his shoulders and won’t compromise his beliefs — or his vote — for the sake of a party. A Democrat, he has demonstrated thus far a willingness to be independent on issues he believes are important to his constituents.

West Virginia is an interesting state. In 1960, its voters were the reason John F. Kennedy secured the Democratic nomination and then was elected president. A blue collar state with lots of union influence, it is fiercely independent, and, these days, voters largely lean Republican. However, Joe Manchin has a considerable following within the state, and part of that is because of A. James.

I knew A. James from my days of working at The Intelligencer newspaper in Wheeling, West Virginia. Back then, the public elevator brought visitors to the second-floor newsroom, but not before the guests had to walk back a rather long and narrow corridor. The elevator was noisy, so everyone in the newsroom knew when someone was arriving.

All the politicians — U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, Gov. (and later U.S. Sen.) Jay Rockefeller — visited the newsroom when in town.

But none made an appearance like A. James.

To say that A. James was flamboyant is kind of like saying, yes, the sun will come up tomorrow. A. James was loud, boisterous and commanded an audience wherever he went.

Picture, if you will for a minute, a swing dancer all decked out in silk shirt, silk tie, pleated trousers, suit coat, alligator shoes, and wearing a fedora. Mix in the showmanship of P.T. Barnum, and you pretty much have a good idea of what A. James was like.

He would visit with reporters for what seemed like hours on end, spinning one story after another of his role as the “Super Hero” of the state. Reporters loved him because he made the words of their stories jump off the pages of the newspaper.

I always thought of A. James kind of like a stereotypical used car salesman, which is ironic, as A. James got his footing in politics heading up the Rehabilitation Environmental Action Program (REAP), which removed old junk cars from West Virginia’s woods and mountains. The program was highly successful and, from there, Manchin used it as a springboard to becoming secretary of state.

Despite being impeached from that position and resigning from office, state residents loved him, and, later, he served for many years in the House of Delegates of the West Virginia Legislature. The House of Delegates called him “a flamboyant character of the first magnitude,” and praised his love of ceremony in their resolution honoring him after his death.

A. James commanded an audience with his flamboyancy. His nephew, Joe, commands an audience today because of the political posture he takes on important national issues.

I believe he is going to be the buffer between Democrats and Republicans these next several years, ensuring nothing too radical in the way of drastic swings in policy will occur in D.C.

I can’t help but believe A. James would smile down on Joe these days. In the end, I believe A. James would be pretty impressed with his nephew and that “Manchin charm and charisma” that still turns heads and gathers an audience.

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