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."
Well, Coca-Cola was made with cocaine when Byrd was a boy. And of course history books were less multicultural before the civil rights era, when Byrd was trashing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in chats with the FBI. For all his talk about bringing progress to West Virginia, Byrd by his own portrayal is a reactionary at heart, questioning the theory of evolution, fighting to keep laptops off the Senate floor, battling coal-industry regulations designed to reduce acid rain and global warming. He is one of the last of the "old bulls" who controlled congressional purse strings when the Senate was a true gentlemen's club, and his top priority hasn't changed in a half-century: shoveling pork into his home state.
Is that so terrible? Byrd once promised to be "West Virginia's billion-dollar industry," and he has more than kept his word, dotting his state with the Robert C. Byrd Bridge, the Robert C. Byrd High School and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, where academics can research how Congress came to give West Virginia six technology centers, two community centers and about two dozen additional projects named for Robert C. Byrd. One man's pork is another man's "domestic infrastructure," and Byrd savors his reputation as the King of Pork. His memoir details hundreds of his earmarks in loving detail, along with gleeful tales of moving Navy and Coast Guard offices to his landlocked state. Appropriately, he moved the Bureau of the Public Debt to West Virginia, too.
This is why Byrd was named "West Virginian of the 20th Century," and is revered as the savior of an impoverished state. But even after Byrd's half-century of largesse -- new prisons, new labs, new subsidies for fish farms, dairies and steelmakers -- West Virginia is still an impoverished state, ranked 49th in per-capita gross state product. "Those earmarks haven't solved West Virginia's problems," says Michael Hicks, an economist at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. "I'm trying to be careful here -- I like my job -- but after 40-odd years, we're still at the bottom of every economic indicator." Byrd was ahead of the curve on welfare reform, complaining as early as 1965 that "relief has become a way of life for some people." But he never noticed that relief could become a way of life for his state. West Virginia is now a ward of the federal government, dependent on Robert C. Byrd.
The Republican revolutionaries who seized Congress in 1994 vowed to dismantle Byrdism, this tradition of entrenched politicians using federal tax money to try to solve local problems and subsidize local industries. They preached small-government conservatism, free-market economics and term limits. But many of them soon succumbed to the attractions of Byrdism. Fiscal restraint was forgotten, porky earmarks exploded and Frist hailed Byrd last week as "an outspoken proponent for investing in domestic infrastructure." It turns out that conservative Republicans like cutting ribbons, too.
Pork is a wildly inefficient way to create jobs, but it does make members of Congress seem indispensable to their constituents. And Byrd's hilariously self-important political memoir makes it clear that he has come to believe that as well. It chronicles just about every award Byrd ever received from a West Virginia interest group, along with excerpts from the glowing speeches thanking him for his work, plus Byrd's assessments of the "rousing" and "enthusiastic" responses to his acceptance speeches. "I lifted the mood of the crowd to soaring heights," Byrd writes in one typical passage. "It was a glorious occasion, and everyone went home happy in heart."
Anyone who has ever suffered through a Byrd speech will recognize the unintentional irony. Byrd thinks his audience is cheering for him, but they're cheering for his handouts. And this is the tragedy of Byrd. He's in many ways an inspiring Horatio Alger story, a child of the coal fields who willed himself to power, the only member of Congress (as he mentions six times in his book) who has put himself through law school while in office. But for all of his fulminating about city snobs who look down on West Virginia hillbillies, Byrd is the one who doesn't believe his constituents can pull themselves up by their bootstraps like he did. He thinks they need his help.
It's not surprising that the man behind the Robert C. Byrd Metals Fabrication Center and Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center thinks so highly of Robert C. Byrd. The surprise is that Byrdism has become the quasi-official philosophy of the GOP-controlled Congress. It turns out that Byrd was right when he defended his Road to Nowhere: Times have not changed.
Michael Grunwald is a
Washington Post staff writer.