Trib­utes to Byrd went over­board

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

It is a good rule of thumb not to speak ill of the dead. But what to do when a man is cel­e­brated be­yond the lim­its of deco­rum or com­mon sense? Must we stay silent as oth­ers cel­e­brate the beauty and splen­dor of the em­peror’s in­vis­i­ble clothes?

You prob­a­bly know why I ask the ques­tion. Robert Byrd, the long­est-serv­ing mem­ber of the Se­nate in Amer­i­can his­tory, died last week. It was truly a re­mark­able ca­reer. But what’s more re­mark­able is how he has been li­on­ized by the cham­pi­ons of lib­er­al­ism.

On Thurs­day, Byrd’s col­leagues took the un­usual step of hon­or­ing him with a spe­cial ser­vice on the Se­nate floor, where he would lay in re­pose — with some irony — on the Lin­coln Catafalque, the bier used to hold the slain body of the pres­i­dent who freed the slaves. The irony stems from the fact that for much of Byrd’s life, his al­le­giances were with Lin­coln’s op­po­nents in that ef­fort. More on that in a moment.

Not long ago, the as­sem­bled forces of lib­er­al­ism were con­vinced that the Se­nate was “bro­ken,” that the anachro­nis­tic fil­i­buster im­peded progress. The Se­nate it­self, with its ar­cane rules and pro­ce­dures, had be­come un­demo­cratic and was in need of vi­tal re­form, ac­cord­ing to all of the usual voices. John Podesta, pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress and a sort of arch­bishop of lib­er­al­ism these days, drew on his deep com­mand of po­lit­i­cal the­ory and so­cial sci­ence to ex­plain that the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sys­tem “sucks,” in sig­nif­i­cant part due to the un­wield­i­ness of the Se­nate.

Well, who bet­ter rep­re­sented those al­leged struc­tural prob­lems than Byrd? Nearly ev­ery obituary cel­e­brates his “mas­tery” of the rules. This is from the first para­graph of The Washington Post’s obituary: Byrd “used his mas­ter­ful knowl­edge of the in­sti­tu­tion to shape the fed­eral bud­get, pro­tect the pro­ce­dural rules of the Se­nate and, above all else, tend to the in­ter­ests of his state.”

Yes, what about his tend­ing to his state’s in­ter­ests? For sev­eral years, there’s been a lot of bi­par­ti­san in­dig­na­tion over the per­fidy of pork and “ear­marks.”

Who, pray tell, bet­ter rep­re­sented that prac­tice than Byrd? The man emp­tied Washington of money and re­sources with an alacrity and de­ter­mi­na­tion not seen since the evac­u­a­tion of Dunkirk. There are too many of these Byrd drop­pings in West Vir­ginia to count, but we do know there are at least 30 struc­tures in that state named for him. So much for Democrats get­ting the mes­sage that Amer­i­cans are sick of self-ag­gran­diz­ing politi­cians.

And so much for the idea that Washington has be­come cal­ci­fied by a per­ma­nent po­lit­i­cal class. Bet­ter to cel­e­brate the fact that he cast his 18,000th vote in 2007.

And then, of course, there is the is­sue of race. The com­mon in­ter­pre­ta­tion is that Byrd’s is a story of re­demp­tion. A one-time Ex­alted Cy­clops of the KKK, Byrd re­cruited some 150 mem­bers to the chap­ter he led — that’s led, not “joined,” by the way. (If you doubt his com­mit­ment to the cause, try to re­cruit 150 peo­ple to do any­thing, never mind have them pay a hefty fee up front.)

Byrd fil­i­bus­tered the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As Bruce Bartlett notes in his book “Wrong on Race,” Byrd knew he would fail, but he stood on bedrock prin­ci­ple that in­te­gra­tion was evil. His in­di­vid­ual fil­i­buster, the sec­ond long­est in Amer­i­can his­tory, fills 86 pages of fine print in the Con­gres­sional Record. “Only a true be­liever,” writes Bartlett, “would ever un­der­take such a fu­tile ef­fort.”

Un­like some seg­re­ga­tion­ists, Byrd’s ar­gu­ments rested less on the prin­ci­ple of states’ rights than on his con­vic­tion that black peo­ple were sim­ply bi­o­log­i­cally in­fe­rior.

Sure, he lied for years about his re­pu­di­a­tion of the Klan. Sure, he was still re­fer­ring to “white nig­gers” as re­cently as 2001. But ev­ery­one agrees his change of heart is sin­cere. And for all I know it was.

What’s odd is what passes for proof of his sin­cer­ity. Yes, he voted to make Martin Luther King Day a hol­i­day. But to lis­ten to some eu­lo­giz­ers, the real proof came in the fact that he sup­ported ever more lav­ish govern­ment pro­grams — and op­posed the Iraq war. Am I alone in tak­ing of­fense at the idea that sup­port­ing big govern­ment and op­pos­ing the Iraq war some­how count as proof of racial en­light­en­ment?

Byrd was a com­pli­cated man, but the ex­pla­na­tion for the out­sized cel­e­bra­tion of his ca­reer strikes me as far more sim­ple. He was a pow­er­ful man who aban­doned his big­oted prin­ci­ples to keep power. And his party loved him for it.

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