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.
Byrd’s legerdemain in fleecing the taxpayer may have made him a legend among West Virginia voters. But it is his problematic early career in politics, which he was never really able to live down, that made him such a puzzling figure. You may never be able to go home, but can anyone ever completely escape their past? It would seem that for some politicians of a particular political party, the answer depends entirely on how eager various constituencies are to forgive and forget. However, it would be too simple to ascribe Byrd’s electoral success over the decades with African American and even progressive voters to purely partisan factors. Unlike former Democrats-turned-southern-Republicans like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond (who never officially apologized for his past views on race), Byrd remained in the Democratic Party and embraced the agenda of racial “equality.” His apologies for past attitudes were oft-repeated, which seemed to imbue his mea culpas with a patina of sincerity.
As mere mortals, we are not vouchsafed the ability to peer into the souls of another and ascertain whether a change of heart on an issue like race is genuine or not. All we have to judge someone is their actions. In that respect, Byrd’s vote opposing the establishment of a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1983 raises legitimate questions about just how sincere he was in his turn away from the dark side of racial politics.
Then again, his vote against the MLK holiday is not that surprising. In the recent PBS documentary Roads to Memphis that follows the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray those last few months before King’s assassination, Byrd was heard in an old TV clip lambasting King for the riot that broke out during the civil rights leader’s first visit to Memphis in support of the sanitation workers, all but calling him a coward:
If anybody is to be hurt of killed in the disorder which follows in the wake of his highly publicized marches and demonstrations, he apparently is going to be sure that it will be someone other than Martin Luther King. What happened yesterday in Memphis was totally uncalled for, just as Martin Luther King’s proposed march on Washington is uncalled for and unnecessary. And I hope that well-meaning negro leaders and individuals in the negro community in Washington will now take a new look at this man who gets other people into trouble and then takes off like a scared rabbit.
Complicating this picture of a King hater even further, Byrd supported the establishment of a memorial to MLK on the National Mall.
The Old South and the New South; Byrd’s life and career was a bridge that spanned the gulch between eras that many Americans of a certain age still find hard to fathom. In the period of less than a lifetime, America has gone from a country where a person of color could not get served a sandwich in a southern diner to electing an African American to the most powerful office in the world largely based on votes from white Americans. The velocity of thought this change represents is so profound that to this day, some refuse to accept it. It appears that Senator Byrd not only recognized the new reality, but embraced it. Whatever votes it may have cost him, the political calculus was a positive in the end.
Racism is not unknown in America, although it is not as nauseatingly a casual thing as it was when Robert Byrd began his political career. However, we do not have the late senator to thank for that. Whatever his change of heart, regardless of how sincere you believe his transmogrification from Kluxer to civil rights supporter, the fact is, he stood in the way of racial progress for nearly three decades of his five-decade political life, and profited politically for doing so. Whatever his contributions to the civic life of the United States, this singular fact will haunt whatever the legacy of Robert Byrd. It will also color the attitudes of future historians who must come to grips with the narrative of this extraordinarily complex man and the difficult times in which he lived.