For idiots and ideologues, the death of Robert Carlyle Byrd at age 92 is seen as just another opportunity to trash their political opponents by portraying the longest serving member of Congress as either a saint or a sinner.
Indeed, in the skein of a man’s life, one can easily cherry-pick events to buttress a case either way. Even looking at the totality of one person’s existence can be misleading when events that occurred decades ago slip in and out of context, or when a relativity game is played where someone is judged using contemporary moral standards of thought and behavior.
Biographers make a living doing this sort of thing. And those who choose to chronicle the life of Robert Byrd are going to face more challenges than they would writing about less consequential men.
What will make a biography of Robert Byrd so difficult to write is that he is one of the few important Americans whose political career spanned one of the most divisive and historically significant periods in American history. When first elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, Byrd had only recently ended a stint as the local Klu Klux Klan’s Kleagle (recruiter). Just two years ago, he was an early endorser of Barack Obama — an historical twist that even Clio, the muse of history, would have had a hard time engineering.
The 62 years between those two events trace the phenomenal journey both America and Byrd traversed. From the outer darkness to sunlight, through riots, blood, tears, and acts of otherworldly courage and base cowardice, to the uneasy, distrustful, ever-evolving relationship between the descendants of former slaves and slave owners we have today, America and Robert Byrd grew to maturity together, changed together, and ultimately achieved a modicum of tolerance together.
He was sorry, he said, for filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was sorry for his membership in the Klan, his opposition to the nomination of the first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and his support for segregation. He was apparently sorry for a lot — as well he should have been.
The question isn’t whether issuing a public apology for his past stands on racial issues was sincere or not. The real question is why most African Americans, liberals, and Democrats forgave him, believed him, and supported his election to the Senate time and time again.
Surely there is a partisan element in Democratic Party constituencies making Byrd’s political second act a reality. As a born-again supporter of civil rights, Byrd had the luxury of being able to oppose prominent African American Republicans for high office like Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice. The former Kluxer could list his legal and policy differences with those two nominees without fear of anyone on his left flank accusing him of backsliding on racial issues. Rather than being seen as pandering on race, Byrd was celebrated for his “principled” stand against the nominees.
But nothing was ever quite that simple for Byrd. Part of his acceptance into the mainstream of the Democratic Party was surely his encyclopedic knowledge of Senate procedure, along with an unwavering — some might even say fanatical — devotion to his interpretation of the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. Both Democratic and Republican presidents alike felt the sting of Byrd’s remonstrances when he felt that the chief executive had overstepped his bounds.
As the Senate’s official historian, Byrd could recite, chapter and verse, debates over the great issues that confronted that body in its history, and translate the arguments into contemporary morality tales with applications for today’s lawmakers. His massive, four-volume The Senate, 1789–1989 garnered several non-fiction awards, including the Henry Adams Prize presented by the Society for History in the Federal Government.
What to say about Byrd’s unapologetic dedication to bringing billions of federal dollars to West Virginia in the form of projects and grants — many of questionable value and dubious necessity? Being the longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee had its perks and one them was, in Byrd’s eyes, the god-given right to milk the taxpayer for every last dollar for his state he could finagle from his colleagues. Beyond that, in his later years, Byrd had a mania for having his projects named after himself. He even acquiesced in the commissioning of a statue of himself that stands in the rotunda of the state capitol building in Charleston. His legacy as an old-fashioned, log-rolling, pork-barrel politician will be secure for all time.