Monday, June 28, 2010

The death of Robert Byrd

Busy blogging day...Word now comes of the passing of Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia at the age of 92. The longest-serving senator in history, Byrd was famous for bringing back federal dollars to his impoverished home state.

I had a chance to watch him up close, as he was President Pro Tempore of the Senate when I served as a staffer there. I was very much of two minds about him: I greatly respected his obvious love of the Senate as an institution, and I would try to listen closely when he made one of his frequent floor speeches about the history of the Senate. (He later turned those speeches into a four-volume history of the U.S. Senate.) And it was an education to be able to listen to him expound on Senate rules and procedure.

However, away from the cameras, he had a reputation as a small, petty, nasty, vengeful man. For those who claim to admire "bipartisanship," Byrd was not your guy; He was as vicious a partisan as the Senate has ever seen.

A former member of the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd also filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When integration of the Armed Forces was an issue in the 1940s, Byrd wrote:

"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."

He claimed to be sorry for his racist past, but as recently as 2001, he used the term "white niggers" in an interview. He later apologized for that.

As I said, I greatly admired his love of the Senate, but there were large parts of his personality that were hard to reconcile with his public image

My former boss, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, used to point out that while Byrd was chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and was shoveling federal dollars back to West Virginia, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee was Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, who did the same for his state from 1979-1993. But despite the billions of dollars thrown their way, Mississippi and West Virginia remained two of the poorest states in the union. There's a lesson in there about the efficacy - or lack thereof - of federal spending to improve the economy.

Another observation: Someone asked me today if Byrd was the last remaining senator from my time in the Senate. I took a moment to look at the list, and, amazingly, there are still 23 senators there from when I left 20 years ago! That's almost one-quarter of the Senate still in place from 1990. It used to be said that there was more turnover in the Soviet Politburo than there was in Congress, and the pace of change does not seem to be accelerating.

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