Monday, June 28, 2010

The Dean of the Senate

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson was president.

He famously kept America out of World War I in his first term, but he failed to keep it out of the war after his second term began.

That was the world into which Robert Byrd was born in November 1917 — nearly six months after John F. Kennedy was born. And today, after more than half a century of representing his home state of West Virginia in Washington, he died at the age of 92.

I think it is important to remember that he was a product of a different time. It was a time when social class determined everything. On board the ill–fated Titanic only a few years before Byrd was born, social class played a prominent role in whether people lived or died.

Not much had changed in the America of 1917, where the Constitution said no man could be denied the right to vote on the basis of race, but in many places, the hoops through which blacks had to jump in order to be registered were so imposing that few could succeed. And most women were not allowed to vote in those days, although the Constitution would give them that right within a few years.

There is no doubt that the America in which Byrd died today was far removed from the America into which he was born.

Although Kennedy and Byrd were born in the same year, they were born into vastly different circumstances. Kennedy was born into a wealthy family; Byrd's mother died during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and the children were sent to live with relatives. Byrd was adopted by his aunt and uncle and raised in a coal–mining town.

Like many young people, Byrd was uncertain which career path to follow as he entered his 20s. And he found acceptance with the Ku Klux Klan, which he joined at the age of 24.

Does the fact that Byrd gravitated to the Ku Klux Klan at a time when segregation existed in most parts of the United States and the armed forces that were being called upon to repel the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific were still segregated have any meaning? I don't know. Young people often seek acceptance in questionable groups. Many times, they find that a group isn't what they thought it was, and they leave.

On the surface, that is what appears to have happened with Byrd. He belonged to the Klan for a short time, then he "became disinterested, quit paying my dues and dropped my membership in the organization."

But there have been other indications that Byrd was committed to the Klan's message of hate.
"I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side. ... Rather I should die a thousand times and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."

Robert Byrd
Letter to Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo in 1944

It isn't possible — as far as I know — for any mere mortals to peek into another person's head and see what lurks there. Was Robert Byrd, as some have suggested, a racist?

Well, there are different opinions on that. Paul Begala writes, in The Daily Beast, that Byrd's "one–year flirtation" with the KKK in the 1940s left "a stain that marked him for life."

And yet, Begala acknowledged, there was also Byrd's opposition to the Civil Rights Act 20 years later. But Begala also observes the many ways in which Byrd tried to make amends in later years.

It was during his time with the Klan that the idea of a political career took hold. After being told that he had a knack for leadership, Byrd said, "suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities! I was only 23 or 24 years old, and the thought of a political career had never really hit me. But strike me that night, it did."

Byrd's talent for leadership may have reached its zenith only a few years ago. Many people voted for Barack Obama believing he would bring the war in Iraq to a speedy conclusion, but, if Byrd had had his way, America never would have invaded in the first place. He went on record voting against the war and lawmakers' authorization of George W. Bush to pursue what Byrd called "reckless and arrogant" policies.

He said Congress was giving Bush a "blank check," and he was right. But the check didn't remain blank for long. In their haste to give the president the authority to invade Iraq (which he quickly exercised), lawmakers from both parties stuck Americans with a running tab that now exceeds $1 trillion.

In many ways, Byrd was a visionary leader, realizing early on, as Newsweek's Eleanor Clift recalls, the power of television and playing a significant role in permitting C–Span to televise Senate proceedings.

I always thought that much of the resistance Byrd may have encountered was easily explained. The Senate may well be the most exclusive club around, but not all its members are gifted speakers and there were many then, as there are now, who preferred to keep their remarks between themselves. That wasn't a concern for Byrd. He "was one of the Senate's great orators," Clift writes. And, indeed, he was.

I found it intriguing when former President Carter said today that Byrd "was my closest and most valuable adviser while I served as president. I respected him and attempted in every way to remain in his good graces."

Of course, that is the kind of thing one is expected to say on the occasion of someone else's death, and I have long been an admirer of President Carter, but it occurred to me that, if he really did hold Byrd in such high regard when he was in the White House, his attitude almost certainly must have changed by the time he sought renomination for the presidency in 1980.

As Clift points out, Byrd supported Ted Kennedy's bid to unseat Carter, and that must have been a sore spot for Carter, who was snubbed by his rival on the podium at the party convention that summer. "Byrd thought Carter didn't show proper respect for the Congress, treating it like the Georgia legislature," she writes. "Every chance he could, Byrd stuck it to Carter and pushed Kennedy as the candidate of the Senate Democrats."

After 30 years, I guess Carter got over the bad experience. He had complimentary things to say about Kennedy, too, when he died last summer. Time heals all wounds.

I'm inclined to wonder, though, if Robert Byrd, a product of his times, was always at heart that pragmatic politician whose skills were first noticed by an associate in the Ku Klux Klan and whose use for anyone depended upon what that person could do for him, whether it was to give him a vote or help him rehabilitate his image.

And, in that sense, he remained open to shifts in popular thinking. Whether he agreed with the shifts may not have mattered. The only question he may have asked on many issues was, "Which way is the wind blowing?"

"In many ways, Byrd had more in common with the culturally conservative Carter than he did with the liberal lion," Clift writes, "but he joined forces with Kennedy on more government spending for social programs, and Kennedy in turn brought him along on civil–rights legislation, helping him to bury his long ago past as a member of the Ku Klux Klan."

When I review the totality of Byrd's remarkable career, I can only conclude that he was a man of contradictions, not so different from most. He made his mistakes and tried to make up for them. Not so different from most guys.

Except for his gift for oratory.

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