A Senate historian, a guardian of the Constitution, an early critic of the Iraq War, Sen. Robert Byrd's colleagues, friends and admirers are offering heartfelt accolades. He grew up dirt-poor in West Virginia, worked hard with his hands and his mind, and eventually gave back with federal funds.
Byrd died Monday at the age of 92 and it is always tricky to criticize someone who has just left us. Even if the person is not famous, he or she is a beloved parent or spouse. When the individual is well-known, with a long list of accomplishments, why bring up the bad? But a saint is so much less interesting than someone who is flawed, and, as my colleague Walter Shapiro writes, Byrd was flawed in morally complex ways.
Byrd's path out of poverty into powerful positions in the Congress was smoothed by men who marched in robes and came together on a platform of "anti": anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner. A Washington Post story examines that legacy and Byrd's not always honest effort to confront it. In a new memoir, "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields," he tried, saying his Klan membership "has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life, career, and reputation."
In Byrd's case, he admits that ambition made him do it. He made a deal with the devil, or in his case, a "Grand Dragon," because Byrd recognized that it was a smart move up for someone without connections. That he did it on the backs of people who had even less, people he had more in common with than the "betters" whose approval he sought, made the deal that much more Faustian.
Byrd not only had to join, he had to recruit 150 others for the Klan. He brought neighbors and friends into his personal, political compromise. I wonder about the sales pitch he used to convince them? And once he completed his conversion to the cause of equal rights, did he go back and tell the 150 recruits that he was wrong, and was he as convincing the second time around?
Byrd's remembrances of those days turned fuzzy, of course. He said he was only involved until 1943, when actually, he wrote a letter to Mississippi segregationist Sen. Theodore Bilbo condemning efforts to integrate the military by President Harry Truman of Missouri, himself a product of a segregated society. It's important to note that Truman made a different choice even when facing a difficult reelection battle.
Byrd voted for some civil rights bills, but filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, justifying the separation of the races. He voted against confirming President Lyndon Johnson's appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the Supreme Court's first black justice. He later made excuses, which is what people do when they're on the wrong side of history.
But Byrd did apologize, and when he started he didn't stop. In that, he was unlike other Southern politicians who made their bones on segregationist policies. North Carolina's Sen. Jesse Helms, who died in 2008, said of his separate and unequal society that it was right for the time; he never regretted his racist rhetoric or views. The late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina didn't say much, but started to hire African Americans when they won the right to vote. (He kept quiet about a lot of things, though, including a black daughter.) George C. Wallace recanted the racism that won elections in Alabama after a would-be assassin paralyzed him.
Byrd sometimes revisited his past. In a 2005 interview, he said that if he had to do it again, he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with reasons based in the human dignity of all.
With the hindsight of history, Byrd admitted he was wrong, in contrast to other younger politicians today -- see Rand Paul of Kentucky -- who, looking back and still not convinced, express doubts about that very same bill.
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