Robert Byrd is dead. This is a great loss for Senator Byrd’s family and for the state of West Virginia. Byrd served his state well for over 50 years.
Byrd’s passing (obviously) has me considering his place in history.
In his early years in politics and in the Senate, Byrd was a white supremacist. He was, unarguably, on the wrong side of history. He filibustered one of the greatest legislative achievements of the 20th century – the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As his relatively glowing obit in the Times puts it, Byrd supported “civil rights legislation consistently only after becoming a party leader in the Senate.” This is a nice way of saying that he supported Civil Rights only when it was politically necessary and safe to do so. Which is ironic considering that Byrd spent much of his career bucking the political winds – including the conservative turn in his home state.
At the same time, Byrd did great things for West Virginia. The credit for whatever prosperity West Virginians enjoy can, quite easily, be laid at the feet of Senator Byrd. The money he poured into the state created jobs, infrastructure and educational opportunities that West Virginia would never have had without his leadership. My sleepy undergraduate institution in Shepherdstown had three (!) buildings funded by Byrd – each of which bore his name. Journalists liked to mock Byrd as a the ‘King of Pork’ and as a paragon of wasteful spending. Yet, if you’d actually spent anytime in the state you’d know that these projects were about as far from a waste as could be. Byrd’s leadership in the Senate and the money he poured in West Virginia are a great example of how government and politicians can materially improve the lives of their constituents.
In his twilight years, Byrd became something of a liberal icon. His die-hard opposition to the Iraq War and the Bush administration bucked a lot of trends in the nation and West Virginia. Listening to Byrd’s speeches and reading his output in that time, I was left with a bit of a impression that Senator Byrd was seeking redemption for the dark choices of his life – his early white supremacist attitudes and voting record, his support for the Vietnam War. I’m not sure if he found redemption but he made a damn good effort at it.
What Byrd’s life and career show, I think, is the possibilities and pitfalls of “greatness”. “Greatness” allowed Robert Byrd to do many good things during his political career – for the country, for West Virginia, and even for animals – and yet it also allowed him to do a few terrible things too. We should learn from that and keep in mind when assessing his legacy.