03/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don Won

In view of the gold-domed Capitol of West Virginia at the University of Charleston, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship had agreed to debate environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr., at the Forum on Energy. But it was really all about coal and mountaintop removal.

Before the debate began I sat there watching them eyeball each other. They avoided all eye contact, only stealing glances when the other wasn't watching.

Bobby said he was nervous, "I was very nervous tonight... for the first time." And Don said he was "concerned." Contrasting himself with his younger, charismatic opponent he said, "I'm basically an introvert from a small town."

Expecting to witness the worst, or at least some shoving, I actually wondered if this was something I should attend while pregnant.

I had a sinking feeling from the beginning. As a West Virginian, I am tired of being embarrassed about all the shenanigans, coming downstairs to an inbox full of questions from my friends in New York.

From the disgrace of mountaintop removal mining and the purchasing of a member of the state Supreme Court -- one of Don's little "contributions" -- to all the jokes on Leno and Men's Health about rotten teeth and incest, few people really understand what a jewel we really are.

On my long list of concerns were these: No one debates against a Kennedy and wins, right? From the beginning, this was Bobby's win-win: New York and Massachusetts don't get into arguments about coal, and West Virginia is the wallflower of the 50 states right now with the Obama administration. There's no blowback for him.

And no one can top a Kennedy on their congenital mastery of public relations. And neither Don nor the coal industry is very good at the age-old art of charm.

I'd been worrying for months that we were going to look bad in more ways than one: What's Don going to wear? Does he have a stylist yet? Is he going to wear all black again? Is he going to hold his wine glass by the stem?

I predicted that Don's temper will flare, his people will act up, and the national (and some international) press will leave West Virginia with no other impression.

In case you don't know, the coal industry in West Virginia is as independent as a hog on ice. The public relations people (usually lawyers) and even the lobbyists are rude and abrupt. Like the hog, they don't need any help or input from anyone, thank you very much. And if it's a reporter they can behave contemptuously with, all the better.

Coal and its adherents are a tight, closed circle and if you aren't a lawmaker they care about, they are all one step short of shoving you down the marble steps of the state capitol. And I knew this before Don's secretary roughed me up when I tried to leave him a message and his lawyers didn't return my calls.

Meanwhile, Kennedy's team couldn't have been nicer or more professional and proactive.
Don -- I'm thinking in my head -- it's better to pass on this debate thing. And sending poor Bobby into the lion's den isn't any good. It's like sending Salman Rushdie to debate the merits of Muslim extremism in Tehran. Rather let's everybody just be nice, lobby the Legislature, and write op-eds in The New York Times!

Frankly, the only way Don wasn't going to make a mess was to control his people and treat the whole thing like a cocktail party on 72nd St. between Madison and 5th.

And to my complete astonishment that's exactly how he played it.

Don might be one black cape short of Snidely Whiplash from the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, but there is no way on earth a self-made scrapper from coal country who once slept on a dirt floor is going to let a Kennedy stand him down, even if he takes all of us down the chute with him in an embarrassing national imbroglio.

But he didn't.

Don won.

He confounded exceedingly low expectations, and he not only held his own with Bobby, he outclassed him with poise and restraint. He countered Bobby's facts convincingly and the merits of his arguments were largely superior in my mind, and I am on the other side.
While everyone in attendance had a dog in the fight and minds were almost certainly unchanged, it was impossible to see Don as uncredible and illegitimate, pursuing a position based solely on the basis of greed.

That is until you see some of the landscapes he leaves behind.

And he didn't even point in Bobby's face one time!

If you have a hard time believing this, it's not too late to see for yourself and make up your own mind.

Don's numbers were compelling and verifiable, and so were his arguments, and he emphasized that while..."you can find any numbers you are willing to pay for..." that he really did his statistical homework. It showed. One example: Windfarms provide 1 percent of American energy needs, he said. How many windmills, he asked, do you need to replace coal, which powers 50 percent of the country?

Bobby, clearly the more passionate and charismatic, appeared to have memorized passages of Coal River by Michael Shnayerson and he was aided by environmental lawyer Joe Lovett of Lewisburg, WV. And while his arguments were more centered on the illegality of mountaintop removal and its toll on the health and welfare of the communities in which it's practiced, he acknowledged that mining in some form will need to continue.

I think no one's calling the debate, because no one wants to say that Bobby lost it.
To all my fellow greenies, I have another bit of bad news. The tax base of West Virginia will collapse without coal. There is no leadership for an ordered transition into a post-coal economy either.

This is not my opinion, this is the math and the reality on the ground here. Coal represents 75 percent of state revenues, and nothing else is on the horizon that can replace it in this country for the next 25 years.

If Don and his friends continue to conduct themselves with such spit and polish, we're going to lose the battle on mountaintop removal, because how they act in public is certainly their biggest strategic black eye until you've seen the tragic mess for yourself.

Can anyone convince the coal industry that the right thing to do here is to stop the practice of mountaintop removal, somehow and soon? Of course India, China and Australia will place no such constraints on themselves or their economies -- "pollution prosperity" as Bobby called it.

I say there's still hope and I will join UC president and debate moderator Ed Welch in being optimistic that there's no reason both men can't be a part of the solution.