Before his death early this morning at the age of 92, I placed the legendary West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd in the category of “only the wrong survive” along with Fidel Castro and Pete Seeger. I was not a fan.
In 2005 the New York Times published a predictably fawning profile of Senator Byrd by Sheryl Stolberg in “A master of Senate’s ways is still parrying in his twilight.” Around the same time I found an occasion to reflect on Senator Byrd’s discourse on Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale in “Tales of the Senate.” Today Adam Clymer provides the traditional Times obituary.
Robert Byrd was indeed a valuable link not only to the Senate’s past, but also to the Democratic Party’s history as the party of slavery, segregation, and opposition to equal treatment of blacks. Stolberg obviously loved Byrd’s cornpone constitutional shtick in favor of filibustering a Republican president’s judicial appointees. It’s a shame that Stolberg exerted no effort to put Byrd’s shtick in the context it merited.
Byrd was old enough, for example, to have vowed memorably regarding the integration of the Armed Forces by President Truman that he would never fight “with a Negro by my side. 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, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”
Even after his resignation from the Klan, Byrd continued to hold it in high esteem, writing to the Klan’s Imperial Wizard in 1946: “The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.”
And Byrd was old enough to have participated in filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as to have voted against it after cloture along with 18 other Democrats — in the name of the Constitution, of course. Funny Stolberg didn’t invite Byrd to take a walk down memory lane on that subject. It would have been highly illuminating.
In Stolberg’s Times profile Byrd cited the late Georgia Senator Richard Russell as his mentor and quoted the advice Russell gave him regarding the ways of the Senate. Russell was a wise man in many ways, but he was also one of the signers of the infamous 1956 Southern Manifesto opposing Brown v. Board of Education — in the name of the Constitution, of course.
Also signing the Southern Manifesto was the late Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Like Byrd, Ervin was resurrected as a heroic cornpone constitutionalist in the eyes of the mainstream media. Ervin was born again during his chairmanship of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973. As with Senator Byrd, all was forgiven and forgotten when he became useful to the message of the day propounded by the mainstream media.
Stolberg’s 2005 profile of Byrd in the Times was accompanied by the photo of Byrd (left) with the caption: “Senator Robert C. Byrd, after speaking at a MoveOn.org rally last month in Washington, defending the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominees.” Only a fellow as supremely lacking in self-awareness as Senator Byrd could have missed the inadvertent allusion to the black power salute of the late 1960’s in Byrd’s gesture depicted in the photograph, or to the “right on” salute of the radical left of the same period, or other more remote historical precedents that Senator Byrd himself loved to invoke against his Republican opponents. RIP.
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