We have not come to praise Senator Robert Byrd, but to bury him. It is an approach to marking the passing of the longest-serving US Senator that we hope he could appreciate, fond as he was of Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Greek and Roman classics.
For all the praise Robert Byrd is going to get for his longevity as a United States senator, for his undoubted skills as an orator of the old school, his knowledge of the arcane Senate rules, and his accumulation and use of raw power, Byrd personified much of what was pernicious about American politics in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. There is no great piece of legislation attached to Robert Byrd’s name. In fact, one of his main claims to fame was to filibuster one of the great laws of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Byrd got his political start as a stalwart in the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1940s, remarkable as his state of West Virginia, detached from Virginia during the Civil War as a pro-Union state, had few blacks. Nevertheless, the future Senator Byrd’s hatred and fear of African Americans was expressed eloquently in a letter written on Dec. 11, 1945, which only became public 42 years later, in which he inveighed against proposals to end racial segregation in the military.
In the letter, Byrd declared: “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.”
By the early 1970s, Robert Byrd, like many other old segregationist politicians had altered his views and had claimed to have left his old Klan past behind him. Nevertheless, Byrd is the only United States Senator to have voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas to be Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. As late as 2001, Byrd was peppering his interviews with racist language, using the term “white n—–s” repeatedly.
Byrd climbed the ladder of power in the Senate slowly but relentlessly. He seized the office of Senate Minority Whip from Teddy Kennedy in 1971. Between 1977 and 1989, Byrd served as Senate Majority Leader, except between 1981 and 1987, when he was Minority Leader due to a period of Republican Control. Byrd was President Pro Temp of the Senate, third in the line of succession to the Presidency and, until late last year, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
It was in that latter capacity that Senator Robert Byrd claims to have had his proudest accomplishments, diverting as much of the federal budget as he could to his impoverished state of West Virginia. Pork barrel spending, or, as it is also called, earmarking, has acquired a noxious odor in contemporary politics, but Byrd practiced it with relish, and with no apologies.
Citizens against Government Waste cited numerous pork projects sponsored by Byrd, many of which were named after him, including, “–the Robert C. Byrd Highway, two Robert C. Byrd federal buildings, the Robert C. Byrd Freeway, the Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism, the Robert C. Byrd Drive and the Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center.”
The people of West Virginia returned their appreciation by voting Byrd back into the Senate year after year, even past the time when age and infirmity had degraded his effectiveness as a senator. Like Strom Thurmond before him, Byrd’s constituents simply did not have the heart to retire him so long as he had a desire to be in the Senate.
What can be summed up about Robert Byrd’s legacy? Shameless porker and early but later repentant racist. Grand orator in a quaint, 19th Century style, and zealous guardian of the privileges of the Senate. A man whose political career bestrides the old, white-dominated era of segregation and the presidency of Barack Obama, the first African-American to reside in the Oval Office. In the broad sense of the word, Senator Robert Byrd has no legacy other than his longevity.
He might have served his state well, though at the expense of everyone else, but he did not serve his country very much, either for much good or for any great ill. Robert Byrd was no world historic figure, but a quaint anachronism who time had passed by long before time had caught up with him. In a way, then, for all the power Byrd acquired, his career as a senator was ultimately a waste. A man with more vision might have used that power to obtain great good. Instead, the monuments to Robert Byrd will not be sweeping pieces of legislation that improves lives or changes history, but will be highways and federal buildings paid for by other people’s money.
Robert Byrd, Respected Voice of the Senate, Dies at 92, Adam Clymer, New York Times, June 28th, 2010
A Senator’s Shame, Eric Pianin, Washington Post, June 19th, 2005