West Virginian Robert C. Byrd, Senate stalwart and vacillator, segregationist and crusader for the rights of the trampled, died Monday at age 92, leaving behind him a swath of controversy, a throng of admirers and friends and a legacy to be long remembered, a life fully led.
It’s not unusual for politicians, legislators especially, to serve well into their retirement years, especially if they continue to ride a wave of public favor. Byrd did just that, only he rode something more tsunami-like, an intensely loyal voter bloc that elected him nine consecutive times to the nation’s most prestigious congregation. While there he witnessed — and influenced — the dramatic evolution of America after the second world war: its shift from agrarian economics, the explosion of the middle class, the rise and fall of anti-communist hysteria and the struggle for civil rights, on which Byrd had, at best, a spotty record. During his 51-year tenure as senator, he served in a variety of high-profile capacities, including majority leader, minority leader, president pro tempore and chairman of the Senate’s largest committee (Appropriations), among others.
It’s also not unusual for politicians to reinvent their personalities, to sacrifice their convictions to the popular breeze, be it noble acquiescence to constituents or a rapacious grab for votes. Byrd did this too. In 1942 he joined the Ku Klux Klan, moved up the ranks, and told a prominent segregationist, “Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt … than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.” He quit the Klan before his run for the House in 1952 (he was elected to the Senate six years later), but for years looked back fondly on the society that first extolled his qualities as a leader. In 1964, part of a coalition of Southern Democrats, he filibustered the Civil Rights Act, but later voted for the 1968 civil rights legislation championed by Lyndon Johnson. By the end of his life, Byrd saw his liaisons with white supremacists and his opposition to racial equality as a stain on his career, and to his grave he was emphatic with regret. In a way, Byrd the man mirrored the trajectory of race relations in our country, reaching, after a century besot with war and class struggle, a kind of moral denouement amounting to reconciliation, a broad step toward total resolution.
He was known for bestowing on his home state a generous annual sum — surpassing $1 billion by the early ’90s — viewed by many as flagrant pork, by others, badly needed relief. He was a man of diverse pursuits that didn’t always pertain to bills, remembered as the one who first brought C-SPAN cameras to the Senate chambers, who knew parliamentary procedure so well he managed to have absent senators arrested and forced back on the floor for a vote. During the Michael Vick debacle he delivered impassioned speeches in defense of man’s best friend. In the last year of his life he was the linchpin vote against a filibuster of the universal health care bill, a position he no doubt found redemptive, given his past.
Most of all, like many enduring men and women, Senator Byrd was an enigma, a maverick before the word became loaded, a man who, much like his country, made his share of mistakes, but could at once look back on them while marching forward.