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A Senator's Shame

West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, in his Senate office last week, has written a new book about his half-century in elective office. A fiddler and a student of history, Byrd has served twice as Senate majority leader.
West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, in his Senate office last week, has written a new book about his half-century in elective office. A fiddler and a student of history, Byrd has served twice as Senate majority leader. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005

In the early 1940s, a politically ambitious butcher from West Virginia named Bob Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the "Grand Dragon" for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W.Va., to officially organize the chapter.

As Byrd recalls now, the Klan official, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington, Va., was so impressed with the young Byrd's organizational skills that he urged him to go into politics. "The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation," Baskin said.

The young Klan leader went on to become one of the most powerful and enduring figures in modern Senate history. Throughout a half-century on Capitol Hill, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has twice held the premier leadership post in the Senate, helped win ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, squeezed billions from federal coffers to aid his home state, and won praise from liberals for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his defense of minority party rights in the Senate.

Despite his many achievements, however, the venerated Byrd has never been able to fully erase the stain of his association with one of the most reviled hate groups in the nation's history.

"It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life, career, and reputation," Byrd wrote in a new memoir -- "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields" -- that will be published tomorrow by West Virginia University Press.

The 770-page book is the latest in a long series of attempts by the 87-year-old Democratic patriarch to try to explain an event early in his life that threatens to define him nearly as much as his achievements in the Senate. In it, Byrd says he viewed the Klan as a useful platform from which to launch his political career. He described it essentially as a fraternal group of elites -- doctors, lawyers, clergy, judges and other "upstanding people" who at no time engaged in or preached violence against blacks, Jews or Catholics, who historically were targets of the Klan.

His latest account is consistent with others he has offered over the years that tend to minimize his direct involvement with the Klan and explain it as a youthful indiscretion. "My only explanation for the entire episode is that I was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision -- a jejune and immature outlook -- seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions," Byrd wrote.

While Byrd provides the most detailed description of his early involvement with the Klan, conceding that he reflected "the fears and prejudices I had heard throughout my boyhood," the account is not complete. He does not acknowledge the full length of time he spent as a Klan organizer and advocate. Nor does he make any mention of a particularly incendiary letter he wrote in 1945 complaining about efforts to integrate the military.

Byrd said in an interview last week that he never intended for his book to provide "finite details" of his Klan activities, but to show young people that there are serious consequences to one's choices and that "you can rise above your past."

He suggested that his career should be judged in light of all that he did subsequently to help lift his state out of poverty, and to bring basic and critically needed services and infrastructure to West Virginia.

"I grew up in a state where we didn't have much hope," Byrd said. "I wanted to help my people and give them hope. . . . I'm just proud that the people of West Virginia accepted me as I was and helped me along the way."

Byrd's indelible links to the Klan -- the "albatross around my neck," as he once described it -- shows the remarkable staying power of racial issues more than 40 years after the height of the civil rights movement. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) learned that lesson the hard way at a birthday party in December 2002, when his nostalgic words about Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who ran for president as a segregationist in 1948, caused a public uproar and cost Lott the majority leader's post.


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