Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) apologized for racially charged language he used during a videotaped interview broadcast yesterday.
Byrd, stressing the importance of "goodwill" among people of different races, used an offensive term to argue that character is not defined by skin color.
"My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that," Byrd said. "There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time -- I'm going to use that word."
Byrd made the comments on Friday during an interview that was broadcast yesterday on "Fox News Sunday." Byrd's office quickly issued a statement of apology after the interview, which was read on the air yesterday by the show's host, Tony Snow.
"I apologize for the characterization I used on this program," said Byrd's statement. "The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today's society.
"As for my language, I had no intention of casting aspersions on anyone of another race. In my attempt to articulate strongly held feelings, I may have offended people. . . ."
Byrd, 83, was making a point in the interview that he believes race relations have improved dramatically over his lifetime. Byrd noted that people, himself included, had learned from their mistakes where race is concerned.
"We all make mistakes. I made a mistake when I was a young man -- it's always been an albatross around my neck -- in joining the Ku Klux Klan," said Byrd, whose early membership in the Klan has long been known. "I think we can all profit by our mistakes. I think we've reached a new plateau, and I think it's going to keep going upward, that understanding and race relations."
Byrd said he believes "we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us."
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called the remark "both repulsive and revealing," and told the Associated Press that the fact that Byrd felt "comfortable enough on nationwide TV to refer to any group in that manner suggests that any progress he has made on race is relative."
Byrd, dean of the Senate Democrats, also condemned the controversial pardons issued by President Bill Clinton on his way out of office. "Malodorous," he pronounced. "They stink. I think he abused the constitutional power that is there for purposes when there's a need to make justice out of an injustice."
The senator is known to have held Clinton in low regard, but yesterday he made clear his disdain runs deep. Of Clinton's legacy, he said: "We have a Republican House, a Republican Senate and a Republican White House. That's part of his legacy."
The other part, he said, is "a lowering of the standards of our culture, I think. I've been in Washington now 49 years, and in these past few years I've seen a more rapid deterioration in the country's culture than ever before."
Byrd said he did not attend Clinton's State of the Union addresses because "I didn't care for him. His lifestyle didn't match mine."
Hillary Rodham Clinton, newly elected Democratic senator from New York, came under no such criticism. She seems to be "going about her work in a very serious and dedicated manner," said Byrd, who is serving with her on the Senate Budget Committee.