Sen. Robert Byrd: Unrepentant big government pork king, and an American original

The longest-serving member of Congress has passed away at the age of 92.  Robert C. Byrd was a man of many contradictions; one who truly believed more government was the solution for all of the economic and social problems of his home state of West Virginia, and the nation at large.  He was not subtle in his ways, once filibustering the Senate for hours on end in protest of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  He was a ruthless power broker, but could also be quite charming and gentlemanly in his ways.  He honestly revered our Constitution and our Founding Fathers, yet so often went well beyond Constitutional boundaries in the thousands of piece of legislation with his fingerprints on it through the years.
As a young man, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  By today’s standards, the KKK is abhorrent to nearly all of us, myself very much included; conservatives have always been very quick to attack Sen. Byrd on his racist past.  However, young men of his time and place were of a completely different mindset, and not entirely without reason.  Forces beyond their control had pitted white vs. black long before Sen. Byrd’s birth in 1917.  How could any poor country boy know any better, when their whole lives they were being told it was the ‘n*****s’ who were the problem?  But Sen. Byrd eventually did learn better, and it is only fair that we forgive him of his past.  After all, Republicans – rightfully so – never had a problem forgiving once-staunch segregationist Strom Thurmond, now did they? (Or maybe they really did, considering the hot water Trent Lott got into back in 2002, but I digress.)

As much as we all hate pet pork projects (or profess to, at least), the money Sen. Byrd so skillfully secured for West Virginia did, in many cases, better the lives of the citizens there.  The man was not a great American hero on the order of Jefferson or Washington, but I do believe he acted at all times with the best interests of his people in mind, which is more than I can say for most of the folks we have on Capitol Hill today.  We have lost the last remaining link to a generation of classic Southern politicians.  Men who are judged as unabashed racists by today’s standards, but were great populists in their time, and who helped shaped the course of modern American history.  It’s always amusing to me whenever I read about George Wallace’s surprising popularity among Alabama blacks, or Jimmy Carter’s little-discussed (even by conservatives) segregationist stance while serving as Georgia’s governor.  Racial matters in the South in the old days were never as clear-cut as we today imagine them to have been, or believe they should have been.  And even if it was for Obama, the fact that a man of Sen. Byrd’s history could endorse an African-American for president has to be considered a sign of racial progress under any reasonable measure.  And, what else can never be taken away is that there may never again be a more skilled orator in the United State Senate.  Love him or hate him, America has lost a political giant in Robert C. Byrd.  May he rest in peace.

Feb 7, 2006 – Byrd one of only four Democratic senators to vote for confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Alito


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