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The legacy of Robert C. Byrd

Submitted by on Monday, 28 June 2010 No Comment

It was more than 20 years ago when I met U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, but I recall two things vividly about that day.

The first was how ill at ease he appeared at what was an obviously orchestrated-for-TV “event” at an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, one that remained a PCB-plagued problem well into this century. Byrd’s discomfort was in stark contrast to an appearance the state’s junior senator, Jay Rockefeller, had made previously at the site.

Rockefeller had donned waders and mucked around. Byrd stood to the side, patiently answering reporters’ questions. Rockefeller’s advance people stopped just shy of bringing a marching band to greet him. A single aide accompanied Byrd.

What really struck me, as I teetered in high heels and wondered whether Rockefeller or I had made the bigger footware faux pas, was how small Byrd was. I’m 5-4, plus the unfortunate heels, and I towered over him.

This is the man that West Virginia worships? This human, tiny and already frail looking, is the one whose name is mentioned in whispered reverence? If not for the trademark pompadour, I would have mistaken him for the butcher he once had been.

To this day I don’t understand why Byrd made that appearance. Maybe his staff had felt one-upped by Rockefeller, who’d shown every sign at the time of turning into one of the senatorial show horses Byrd disdained. Byrd didn’t particularly need the publicity.  Even though it was pretty well known at that point that his home in West Virginia consisted of a post office box, few people came close on election day.  He had been seriously challenged in 1984, just a few years before that appearance, but even a millionaire who poured in a personal fortune still lost by 4 percentage points.

That day is not the only thing that’s hard to comprehend about Robert Byrd.

How could the same person who jettisoned Clinton’s health care bill support Obama’s, invoking the name of former political foe Teddy Kennedy in doing so? How could someone who’d filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 later show an 84 percent voting record with the ACLU. And how could a former Klan member endorse Barack Obama as president?

None of that is possible absent deep and profound personal change. If not for the fact that I’ve witnessed other people go through such metamorphosis I’m not sure I’d believe Byrd’s transformation was for anything other than political expediency.

But I have seen it. I’ve watched a sexist whose views were just shy of “keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant” vote for a woman for governor. I’ve watched people who have thrown around the n-word a time or two in their lives post Obama campaign signs in their yards.

Byrd spent decades apologizing for things he did when he was younger – I’m not sure you can count Klan membership at age 46 as a “youthful indiscretion,” but he nonetheless has expressed regret time and again. “I know now I was wrong,” Byrd told The Washington Post five years ago. “Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times… and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened. ”

I’m willing to take him at his word, in part because I want to. I want to believe that anyone can be redeemed at any point in life, no matter how vilely immoral their previous attitudes were.

As far as the other knocks against him, yes, Byrd was unabashedly the prince of pork, but so what. At least they were real projects – he just happened to direct them to a state where they were desperately needed. They built bona fide interstate highways, not bridges to no where.

Was he a relic in the end? Yes, but in a good way. He was a throwback to the days when politics was a profession, a craft to be mastered, not before the cameras and on the talk shows, but by learning the art of the deal and the nitty gritty of the institution. You found a mentor, and you studied the moves. You cared more about legislating than about getting on Glenn Beck or CNN. You studied procedure as closely as you studied the list of PAC parties.

It says a lot about the changing times that of the four people mentioned as possible replacements for Byrd, only one has those skills. I doubt it would be any different in the other 49 states. Work horses are hopelessly out of fashion.

Rest in peace, Senator Byrd. You might well be the last of your kind.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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