Monday, June 28, 2010

Robert Byrd — 1917-2010

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) has died at the age of 92.

A child of the West Virginia coal fields, Mr. Byrd rose from the grinding poverty that has plagued his state since before the Great Depression, overcame an early and ugly association with the Ku Klux Klan, worked his way through night school and by force of will, determination and iron discipline made himself a person of authority and influence in Washington.

Although he mined extraordinary amounts of federal largesse for his perennially impoverished state, his reach extended beyond the bounds of the Mountain State.

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District from 1961 to 1969, he reveled in his role as scourge, grilling city officials at marathon hearings and railing against unemployed black men and unwed mothers on welfare.

He was known for his stentorian orations seasoned with biblical and classical allusions and took pride in being the Senate’s resident constitutional scholar, keeping a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. He saw himself both as institutional memory and as guardian of the Senate’s prerogatives.

It’s hard to imagine that someone who was elected to Congress the year I was born — 1952 — was still serving nearly sixty years later. That’s impressive no matter what you may have thought of the man and his politics.

Our friends on the right will remind us again and again that Mr. Byrd once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, he did. And he repented and made amends, whereas other senators of the time who outlived the Jim Crow laws in their states did not; they simply became members of the party that didn’t seem to mind having old times there not be forgotten. At the least Sen. Byrd didn’t carry his past as a badge of honor; it was more a lesson that times change and people have to change with them.

Rest in peace.