In a packed auditorium on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, Senator Jay Rockefeller took a seat on the stage, joined by Emmy-award winning journalist Ted Koppel, a long-time correspondent for ABC News and former host of their late night news magazine Nightline.
The two sat down as old friends to discuss Rockefeller’s decades in politics, his feelings toward the current atmosphere in Washington and, most importantly to him, to motivate young people on the campus of Wesleyan to get involved in public service.
Rockefeller told stories of wanting to avoid the reputation of money that came with the family name, of journeying to Japan in college to learn the language and spend time with the people and then of joining the Peace Corps in the Philippines to help in the world.
But it was West Virginia, he said, that truly changed him.
“Everything in my life has been really kind of rationally, except if you look at it closely,” he said.
“I didn’t want to live in New York City. I didn’t want to be a financier. I wanted to be involved with people as I was in Japan, as I was in Philippines, but I wanted them to be here in the United States.”
Rockefeller moved to Emmons, West Virginia, a poverty stricken community in Kanawha County, in the early 1960s as a VISTA Volunteer, where he says he was completely changed as a person. The struggles of the community inspired him to fight for their needs.
After serving a term in the House of Delegates, then as West Virginia’s Secretary of State, Rockefeller lost his first bid for governor. Shortly after, he was named president of Wesleyan College, a position he held for two years, where he almost decided to give up a career in politics.
“That in turn caused me to do the most profound thinking about where I could do the most good and it was close,” he told the audience Tuesday, “but I opted for public policy and all the junk that goes along with it.”
That junk, he said, are things like campaigning and media appearances, things he admits he doesn’t necessarily enjoy.
Koppel asked the senator to describe the changes he’s seen over the past decade or so leaving Washington so polarized and politicized.
“I think the Tea Party had something to do with it,” he answered. “The liberals became so liberal, the conservatives became so conservative that there wasn’t really any talking with them and nobody would compromise.”
Rockefeller said compromise has become such an ugly word in politics, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to do so.
After the forum, Rockefeller said he is looking forward to not retiring. Instead, he sees stepping away from political office as a chance to commit more of his time to the issue he loves, things like technology, education, and national security.