Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Senator Robert Byrd-End Of An Era (Well, We Can Always Hope)

Somewhere in hell-

Now relax, for all we know, the old former Kleagle might have fooled his old friends by not showing up. After all, he did claim to have disavowed the Klan, and regretted (letting it become public knowledge) that he ever joined them. We should honor his years of public service by taking him at his word.

Wait a minute, what am I saying-he's a politician. Excuse me, slight relapse there.

As you might imagine, folks have different takes on Byrd's death. Sister Toldjah is gracious, even for her, while Pat at Belschspeak seems more sure of his ultimate destination than I.

My take on Byrd, his life, career, and death, takes into consideration the totality of his contributions to public life and society.

He was born in 1917, the same year that progressive Democratic President Woodrow Wilson broke his earlier vow to enter World War One-after winning re-election in part with the slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War"-by entering the war, and then arresting and harassing any who protested his actions. Like Wilson, Byrd was a Southerner, and a racist, who later became progressive in his policies. Wilson promoted the same Klan which later Byrd joined, and in his public career, Byrd was every bit as segregationist and bigoted as Wilson, only more openly so, as witness this bit of charming prose from the Gentleman of the Senate-

“I shall never fight in the armed forces 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.”

- Robert C. Byrd, in a letter to Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), 1944

Byrd of course opposed segregation in more matters than merely Truman's integration of the Armed Forces, and did so rigorously, until it became obvious to him, not so much that it was the wrong thing to do and that he was on the wrong side of history, nor because he knew he might lose his Senate seat if he failed to change his stance, but in all likelihood because he knew current realities in the Senate demanded he change if he had any intention of keeping his seniority in regards his committee assignments. Robert Byrd was too much of a pragmatist to be content to remain as a mere back-bencher. He had votes to buy and loyalties to maintain, and that required Congressional largess for his state and constituents. He was richly rewarded for his years of past service and the promise of future service to come to the Democratic Party, which for most of his career was the majority party. West Virginia, while consistently one of the poorest states in the country, nevertheless benefited from Byrd's legendary ability to bring home the pork, and such was the level of gratitude from state officials that, had he lived much longer, there is every indication the state of West Virgina might well have been re-named Byrdvania.

Doubtless it was explained to Byrd how the black vote was becoming more vital than ever in certain constituencies of the nation due to years of progressively increasing black migration from the South to the North and the Midwest and other areas over the course of the preceding fifty years, and that in addition to its stated objectives, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs would help keep blacks docile, restrained to a type of welfare plantation. It might even encourage more blacks to migrate out of the South and border states.

Soon, Byrd became a staunch supporter of leftist progressive Democratic policies, while possible acting as a brake on some of the nuttier liberal excesses in the name of electoral viability, while at the same time never appearing as a divisive influence in his own party. However, he was consistent in his Democratic loyalties to the end, supporting for example the recently passed Health Care Bill in one of his last votes.

To the end, he opposed the war in Iraq as an unconstitutional abrogation of the power of Congress to declare war. Well, he had a point there. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, as they say.

He was known to carry around a pocket version of the Constitution. We can imagine, though we can not know for sure, that he wept in private whenever he read the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

He openly disliked Bill Clinton, though never expressed this until the end of Clinton's presidency. He was fond of Hillary.

Robert Carlysle Byrd was the penultimate Democrat for his time, a man born into the era that saw the beginning stages of the evolution of the progressive faction of the Democratic Party take root in the midst of its divisive and racist heritage, during a time when most progressives were in fact themselves openly racist, and in some regards irritatingly sanctimonious about it. Like that movement, his own progressive leanings evolved and grew.

And now he's dead, at the time when many of the progressives of the US are coming to grips with their disappointment in the man whom they thought would bring about the hope and change Byrd himself advocated at first reluctantly, and then wholeheartedly.

The progressive movement of course is not dead. It's just, maybe like Byrd, in a state of purgatory.