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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)

With the help of fiddle-playing skills that became his political trademark for decades, Byrd won election to the state legislature, where he served in both chambers until he ran for the U.S. House in 1952. His political career almost ended there, however, when his opponents revealed his former ties to the KKK.

Confronting the issue, Byrd went on the radio to acknowledge that he belonged to the Klan from "mid-1942 to early 1943," according to newspaper accounts. He explained that he had joined "because it offered excitement and because it was strongly opposed to communism." He said that after about a year, he quit and dropped his membership, and never was interested in the Klan again.

Byrd won the primary, but during the general election campaign, Byrd's GOP opponent uncovered a letter Byrd had handwritten to Green, the KKK Imperial Wizard, recommending a friend as a Kleagle and urging promotion of the Klan throughout the country. The letter was dated 1946 -- long after the time Byrd claimed he had lost interest in the Klan. "The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia," Byrd wrote, according to newspaper accounts of that period. Byrd makes no mention of the letter in his new book.

Stunned Democratic state party officials, including then-Gov. Okey L. Patteson, urged him to drop out of the race. Byrd survived the ensuing political firestorm, won the general election and went on to serve six years in the House before winning his Senate seat in 1958. During his Senate campaign, he told a newspaper reporter that he personally felt the Klan had been incorrectly blamed for many acts committed by others.

Byrd's life story is one of political transformation and redemption as he evolved from a redneck politician to a mainstream Democrat in a party dominated by liberals. But there was no way for him to completely bury his Klan ties, and his past would resurface time and again throughout his career.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Byrd, who was closely allied with then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Tex.), tried to derail the Democratic front-runner, Sen. John F. Kennedy (Mass.), in the crucial West Virginia primary. At Johnson's urging, Byrd supported Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (Minn.) in the primary. Kennedy allies retaliated with leaks to the press about Byrd's work as a Klan organizer. Byrd said in his book that as a result he received hate mail and threats on his life.

Four years later, Byrd's Klan past became an issue again when he joined with other southern Democrats to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Byrd filibustered the bill for more than 14 hours as he argued that it abrogated principles of federalism. He criticized most anti-poverty programs except for food stamps. And in 1967, he voted against the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first black appointed to the Supreme Court.

Transformation Into Leader of Senate

Historians, political analysts and admirers have long sought to reconcile Byrd's early Klan affiliation with his image as a pillar of the Senate. More extraordinary is how he managed to overcome such a blot on his record to twice become Senate majority leader.

"To imagine someone who was a member of the Klan in his youth who managed to become the majority leader of the Senate, it's really quite striking," said congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution.

Byrd said last week that his membership in the Baptist church tempered his views and marked "the beginning of big changes in me." And like other southern and border-state Democrats of his time, Byrd came to realize that he would have to temper his blatantly segregationist views and edge toward his party's mainstream if he wanted to advance on the national stage.

As a rising member of the leadership, Byrd paid close attention to minor legislative and scheduling details that made life easier for other senators, always showed colleagues elaborate courtesy, and wrote thank you notes on the slightest pretext. In 1971, he challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) for the majority whip post and unseated him, after securing the death-bed proxy of the legendary Sen. Richard B. Russell (D-Ga.), another of Byrd's mentors and the architect of the southern filibuster against civil rights legislation.

When Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) retired as majority leader in 1976, Byrd easily captured the post.

"Byrd's whole life became the Senate, seven days a week, 24/7, always on call," said Merle Black, an Emory University expert on southern politics. "The goal was institutional power, to be influential in the Senate."

But his transformation to mainstream Senate leader was far from smooth, and his cultural conservatism, emphasis on "law and order," and strong support for the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s put him at odds with blacks and many lawmakers in his own party.

James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the NAACP and an occasional critic of the senator, said Byrd transcended his past by gradually embracing more enlightened social views and by simply owning up to his past mistakes. "He doesn't try to lie his way out of things," Tolbert said. "If he's wrong, he'll say he's wrong."

By relentlessly serving his state's economic interests, Byrd has secured his place as West Virginia's preeminent politician. As a long-reigning chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, Byrd pumped billions of dollars worth of jobs, programs and projects into the state that did not have a single mile of divided four-lane highway when he began his political career. More than three dozen bridges, highways, schools and public buildings are named for him.

Still, says Ken Hechler, 90, a liberal Democratic former U.S. House member from West Virginia who served with Byrd in Congress, "It's impossible for anyone to try to whitewash the KKK and its overall symbolism."

"But at the same time," he added, "we honor those people who publicly admit the error of their ways."

Last week, Byrd said: "I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times . . . and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."

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