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Remembering the real Robert Byrd
There's no denying the long-serving Senator's many accomplishments. But they shouldn't erase the more troubling aspects of his record.
Tish Durkin
Tish Durkin
D

o you long to be lionized as one of life's great legends? Would you just love to have your triumphs played up and your failings all but forgotten? Can you imagine having your weaknesses portrayed as strengths and your strengths portrayed as miracles? This may sound impossible to achieve. But as has been clearly shown by the coverage of Senator Robert Byrd's recent passing, it is, in fact, available to anyone through a simple, two-part process. First, get very, very old. Then, die.

I know, that's a terrible thing to say, especially so soon after the poor man breathed his last. Really and truly, I mean no disrespect for Byrd, nor for the family who loved him, the colleagues who respected him, or the constituents who revered him. But as I read the eulogies, elegies and encomiums now bursting forth about the unbelievably senior senator from West Virginia, I do find myself asking several uncomfortable questions.

Forgive me, but:

Should extremely powerful jobs be held by extremely old people? Of course, it is comical to raise this issue about anyone in the Senate, in which extremely powerful jobs are practically off limits to remotely young people. In losing Byrd, West Virginia has lost a great deal of the most valuable commodity in the Senate, which is seniority. Byrd would not have had to be capable of lifting a pencil to keep shoveling tons of federal funding to his constituency. But, as in the case of the perpetually dozing Strom Thurmond before him, it requires a herculean effort at disingenuousness to regard Byrd in his final years as anything other than a fraction of his former self.

Eulogists marvel that he was a one-man "billion-dollar industry" — as if there's nothing wrong with that.

Even so, his fans might argue, that left him a greater figure than some of the kids serving with him. Perhaps. But as society ages, and as more and more people are able to continue working for more and more time, it strikes me as worth rethinking the reflex to glorify the elderly simply for hanging on... and on... and on. I'm not suggesting that any age automatically disqualifies anyone from making real contributions in life. But if the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee does not require more energy and acuity than Byrd seemed to possess for quite a while before relinquishing the position last November, we need to worry about the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Second question: Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be an old-style political wheeler-and-dealer, as Byrd certainly was? Personally, I view it as a good thing. Then again, I have never been one of those Americans whose heart flutters when presidential candidates vow to transform the way business is done in Washington, D.C. Unlike a lot of voters, who seem to develop quadrennial amnesia on this topic, I remember that every time someone tries this, he fails spectacularly. In fact, I'd even go so far as to make an axiom of it: The more that any candidate vows to change Washington, the more Washington will end up changing him.

That's fine with me: As a moral matter, I think that more good was done for more ordinary people by the 1920's-era New York governor Al Smith, the pride of Tammany Hall, than by any number of the campaign-finance-reform goody-two-shoes of today. And I think that if one is going to join a legislature, it makes all the sense in the world to master all the obscure nooks and crannies of legislating. But for those millions who profess to think the opposite — who hate the idea of pork-filled barrels and smoke-filled rooms — let's face it: the loss of the Senate's foremost embodiment of all that is not very much to mourn.

Speaking of pork, question three: Is a vast quantity of "the other white meat" all that healthy for a state's economy? Today's eulogists marvel that Byrd exceeded his goal of becoming a one-man "billion-dollar industry" for West Virginia, as if there's nothing wrong with that. But there is — and not only for the places that didn't get that moolah, but for the places that did. Clearly, a state with over 37,000 miles of highway, which West Virginia has upon losing the senator, is infinitely better poised for advancement than a state which has four miles of highway, which it had upon gaining him. That said, if Byrd's subsidy-steering illustrates any larger philosophical point, it is a point that he would never make — namely, that intense government investment does not necessarily lead to investment of any other kind. It was 1989 when Byrd set that billion-dollar goal, upon becoming appropriations chair. As of 2008, according to census data, West Virginia was still the second-poorest state in the union.

It would be ridiculous to blame Byrd for poverty that long predated him, and churlish to begrudge him the hard-won legacy of federal projects and buildings bearing his name. But if one is going to note his success in bringing home the bacon, it is only fair to note the bacon's failure to fatten the general economic prospects of West Virginia.

Finally, at what point does a truly ugly part of one’s personal history begin to merit more than a passing mention in the glowingly told story of one's life? Byrd spent at least the first five decades of his life as a committed racist. He was not just a member of the Klu Klux Klan, he ran a chapter of it — and for much longer than he initially acknowledged. He didn't just vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He filibustered against it — and his filibuster was not one long, passionate defense of states' rights. It contained truly benighted remarks about race.

Of course, it is to Byrd's great credit that he ultimately changed his tune, perhaps even more so because he shed racist beliefs he really held, rather than racist fashions he simply followed. But he was very slow to enlighten himself — too slow, in my opinion, for that chapter to be made a footnote in his very long life.

Sadly, that life has now ended. And pathetically, if predictably, the hagiography has begun.

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