Dept. of Sacred Cows

If This Is the Senate's Soul . . .

By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, June 18, 2006

Hugh Rogers, the president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, once tried to persuade his U.S. senator to oppose a road through the mountains he loves, a billion-dollar boondoggle that had been lampooned nationwide as a "Road to Nowhere."

But his senator was Robert C. Byrd (D), the legendary pork dispenser who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time. And the road was the Robert C. Byrd Highway, the latest slice of asphalt in the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System, not to be confused with the Robert C. Byrd Expressway, Robert C. Byrd Freeway or Robert C. Byrd Drive.

Byrd didn't seem to be listening. But Rogers knew Byrd was a published historian, renowned for his stentorian speeches about the statesmen of yore, so he tried quoting Abraham Lincoln to the effect that great men must change with the times.

Suddenly, Byrd snapped to attention.

"Times," he thundered, "have NOT changed!"

Not for Byrd. Last Monday, he became the longest-serving senator ever, with a 17,327-day streak dating to the Eisenhower administration. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) hailed him as a "true Senate icon," Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) as "a giant." Colleagues in both parties paid tribute to this outspoken (if not plainspoken) 88-year-old from humble origins as "the soul of the Senate," the institutional conscience of the world's greatest deliberative body.

Byrd is indeed a self-taught, self-made man who remains beloved in West Virginia. He has defended the Senate's prerogatives against Republican and Democratic presidents, and opposed the war in Iraq back when it was still popular. And there is something amusing about his pedantic orations justifying West Virginia poultry research by way of Plato and Cicero.

But let the record reflect that Byrd is an anachronism. Not just in the quaint sense, like a corncob pipe or a grandpa who still says "fiddlesticks." And not just because he was once an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd is a throwback to -- and remains nostalgic for -- a bygone (and not usually lamented) political era.

In fairness, Byrd has repeatedly apologized for his stint in the Klan more than 60 years ago. In his recent autobiography, "Robert Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields," he attributes his "foolish mistake" to youthful "tunnel vision." But while Byrd has said he renounced the Klan when he was 25, the conservative magazine Human Events has noted that he urged the Klan's Grand Dragon to bring the group back to West Virginia three years later. And while Byrd found room in his 770-page tome for entire sections on topics such as "WVU Wins Peach Bowl," he left out the letter he wrote to segregationist Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.) declaring that he would never fight "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."

Byrd's discomfort with racial issues outlived his youth. He filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act, at one point citing a study that purportedly proved whites had heavier brains than blacks. He used a racial epithet in a 2001 Fox News interview. He later apologized, but there is a bizarre passage in his autobiography describing America's white ethnics as "former minorities," and implicitly contrasting them with today's minorities. The former minorities "sought no special status," he writes. "They did not push and shove and demand something for nothing."

"If this nation were to be restored to its former greatness," he argues, "Americans must perpetuate the legacy of their Old World ancestors."

It's remarkable enough for an ex-Klansman to serve in public office, but it's truly astonishing for an ex-Klansman to wallow in public nostalgia. Much of Byrd's book is a moralistic lament for the good old days, for the "former greatness" of America. "There were great funny papers in the days of my boyhood," but not anymore. Back then, kids were respectful, the culture was not yet debased, the cities were not yet as dangerous as "the jungles of deepest Africa" -- yes, that's what he wrote -- and history books had not yet devolved into politically correct "multiculturalism." Even Coca-Cola was "a more zestful and invigorating drink when I was a boy."

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