Capitol Idea: Sen. Byrd: A Difficult, But Indispensible, American Hero

The death of Ted Kennedy last summer brought a flow of tears from liberals and progressives and prompted what amounted to national days of mourning as the old liberal lion was eulogized and laid to rest.

Reaction to the passing of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, by contrast, is likely to be more subdued — perhaps amounting to a collective, if respectful, shrug of the shoulders.

Alhough Byrd has often been described as a conservative, he spent recent decades promoting solid Democratic values and earned a place as a friend to liberals and progressives. Moreover, Americans across the political spectrum owe a debt to the man who grew up poor in a small coal-mining town.

“Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America. But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain,” said Byrd’s home-state colleague, Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

The Left probably holds the nine-term veteran in highest regard for taking on the Bush administration. Byrd vigorously opposed not only the Iraq war, but the entire concept of preemptive war.

But his devotion to Democratic Party ideals went beyond merely serving as a nemesis to the 43rd president. Even as it went out of fashion nationally, Byrd never wavered in his belief that federal spending could help improve the conditions and economy for working-class Americans, particularly back home in the Mountain State.

And his deep scholarship and lofty oratory made Byrd a formidable defender of Democratic ideals, even in the face of growing conservative partisanship.

I recall watching the Senate one day shortly after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. One of the new GOP senators elected that year had come to the floor and began ranting on about the provisions in the Republican “Contract With America.”

The freshman’s mistake was yielding time to Senator Byrd, who began holding forth on Plutarch and the Roman Senate. The Republican was caught as a deer in the headlights and beat a hasty retreat as he had no defense against Byrd’s use of history to take apart his sloganeering.

More than fealty to any partisan position, however, Robert Byrd held tight to the Constitution — literally. He would carry our nation’s charter in his breast pocket, and would not hesitate to pull it out on the Senate floor whenever necessary in order to defend the liberty so many fought and died to preserve.

That Byrd could transcend partisan pigeonholes is reflected in the accolades heaped upon him in death. Liberals and conservatives, alike, paid tribute to this extraordinary American who served longer in Congress than anyone else and amassed a record of more than 18,500 votes.

None of the those who have been lauding Byrd and his career since his death at a hospital near Washington early Monday would be so tactless as to mention an overriding reason why a broader national outpouring might be more tempered. But the Washington Post’s obituary covers it in fairly graphic detail.

Following a youthful association with the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd spent his early years in the Senate advancing an often segregationist and racist agenda that today we would find repugnant.

Time changed Byrd’s ways. He apologized for his racism, and the once-vocal opponent of equality turned around and became such a civil-rights supporter as to back the Equal Rights Amendment.

Unlike other Democrats who may turn a blind eye to Byrd’s unsavory past, or make excuses for it, I instead see it as one more reason to admire him.

The incredible arc of Robert Byrd’s historic career is nothing more than a 60-year lesson that leaders can change their ways, and can learn to embrace good policies and positions they once may have rejected out of hand. In a word, Senator Byrd stands for the chance for redemption for all.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that can be said for Byrd’s life and career are the high words of praise offered by our nation’s most prominent African American.

“Senator Byrd’s story was uniquely American,” says Barack Obama. “He was born into wrenching poverty, but educated himself to become an authoritative scholar, respected leader, and unparalleled champion of our Constitution. He scaled the summit of power, but his mind never strayed from the people of his beloved West Virginia. He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time.”

The publisher of On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered government and Washington for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. The article was first published as Sen. Byrd: A Difficult, But Indispensible, American Hero,” on Blogcritics.org.

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