June 28, 2010

When I awoke this morning and turned on CNN (that's right, it wasn't FOX News first), the first story to greet me was the announcement of the death of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

Noting that first and foremost, Byrd was a career politician (really a career Capital Hill member), CNN Pronounced that he was, by far, the foremost guardian of the Senate's complex rules, procedures and customs, and as leader of both the majority and the minority caucuses in the Senate he knew better than most that legislation is the art of compromise. By virtue of his endurance, Robert Byrd knew and worked with many of the greats of the United States Senate.

Born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr. in North Wilkesboro, N.C., in 1917, Byrd, at the age of fifteen months, was sent to live with the aunt and uncle, who renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd.  His new parents took him in as a result of his mother death in the 1918 flu pandemic. Her sister and brother-in-law raised him in the coal-mining region of southern West Virginia.

He was an intelligent young man, having graduated as the valedictorian of Mark Twain High School. He eventually attended Beckley, Concord, Morris Harvey and Marshall Colleges in his home state, but never graduated from either. His ambitions lay in other areas, like the area of control.

When he was twenty-four, Byrd join the Ku Klux Klan after having been told by a Klan recruiter: "You have a talent for leadership, Bob... The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation.  Byrd later recalled, "suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities! I was only 23 or 24 years old, and the thought of a political career had never really hit me. But strike me that night, it did." Byrd held the titles Kleagle (recruiter) and Exalted Cyclops.

In 1944, Byrd wrote to segregationist Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo: "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."

Then came his "conversion." Upon deciding to run for West Virginia's 6th Congressional Seat in 1952, Byrd announced that he had spent a year of heart wrenching thought and came to the decision that he would quit paying dues to the Klan. Notice the he didn't say he had a change of heart?

He said he had joined the Klan because he felt it offered excitement and was anti-communist. However, in early 1947 he wrote a letter to a Grand Wizard stating, "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation."

Byrd was elected to the House of Representatives for three terms before being elected to the Senate in November, 1958.  By 1960, Byrd became a very close and personal friend of Lyndon Johnson.

In 1964, still harkening back on his days as a Jim Crow supporter, Byrd joined the southern Democratic Senators in the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act.  He also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but after spending a number of hours with them President Johnson, both came to see the benefits of these two pieces of legislation.

It was Byrd who, after announcing he regretted his filibuster and his opposition to the Voting Rights Act, went before told many of his Democratic Party members: "the Negro populace represents the future of the Democratic Party and these two pieces of legislation would secure their vote for generations to come."

Remarkably Senator Byrd almost instantly went from KKK supporter to the Champion of the Black Community, supporting every bill on the Senate floor which extended preferential treatment to blacks, welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and a host of other bills which more less threw a majority of African-Americans into a state of dependency on the government to solve their ills. 

We have see the results of these actions in the last 45 years: More dependency and a growing nanny state which is almost totally out of control.  Senator Byrd was the pragmatic career Senator.  Whatever it takes to stay in power, Robert Byrd would do, even if it meant selling his idealism out to get a vote. In his last five elections (1982, 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006) Byrd received 98 percent or more of the black vote.

Byrd is well known for steering federal dollars to West Virginia, one of the country's poorest states. He is called the "King of Pork" by Citizens Against Government Waste. After becoming chair of the Appropriations Committee in 1989, Byrd sought to steer, over time, a total of $1 billion for public works in the state. He passed that mark in 1991, and the steady stream of funds for highways, dams, educational institutions, and federal agency offices has continued unabated over the course of his membership. More than thirty pending or existing federal projects bear Byrd's name. He commented on his reputation for attaining funds for projects in West Virginia in August 2006 when he called himself "Big Daddy" at the dedication to the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center.

Although not an ardent radical liberal, he was to a great extent socially conservative as witnessed by his efforts to limit gay marriage and he once said on the Senate floor in 1996: The drive for same-sex marriage, is, in effect, an effort to make a sneak attack on society by encoding this aberrant behavior in legal form before society itself has decided it should be legal...Let us defend the oldest institution, the institution of marriage between male and female as set forth in the Holy Bible.

He also voiced praise for George W. Bush's nomination of Judge John Roberts to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Likewise, Byrd supported the confirmation of Samuel Alito to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Like most Democrats, however, Byrd opposed Bush's tax cuts and his proposals to change the Social Security program. He is pro-choice and voted against the first ban on partial birth abortions in 1995, but voted for the bill on subsequent occasions.

What remains of his legacy, however, is the fact that he recognized the power of the supportive voter. What he championed, however is not the support of the black vote, the the black vote support from the government. He stayed in the Senate that way.