Senator Robert Byrd's legacy

Senator Robert Byrd (DW.Va.), who died this morning at 92, was born before Commonweal existed. But the earliest mention I could find of Sen. Byrd in our pages was a brief item in a "News and Views" roundup by John Deedy in the April 26, 1968, issue:

It is the type [of] comment to haunt the sensitive man to his grave, but perhaps not Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.Taking the Senate floor after the March 28 rioting in Memphis, Senator Byrd addressed himself to Martin Luther King and the Poor People's Campaign which Dr. King was to lead in Washington: "If this self-seeking rabble rouser is allowed to go through with his plans here, Washington may well be treated to the same kind of violence, destruction, looting and bloodshed" as Memphis.Or, if you prefer, Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana.Asked during a radio interview what he thought of the assassination April 4 of Dr. King, Ellender snapped, "I'm not surprised." Asked if he thought Dr. King's death would mean passage by Congress of the pending civil rights bill, Ellender sighed. "I hope not. I hope not."

There is no getting around Byrd's racist past in accounting for his life in politics. His membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are the items most often mentioned. Neither those choices nor his badly timed attack on Dr. King ended his career in the Senate, and his name appeared in Commonweal from time to time in connection with his role as majority (and then minority) leader in the Senate and as head of the appropriations committee.

A May 1972 article, "The Whimper in Congress" (written by the pseudonymous "James Madison") named Byrd as one of the reasons the Senate couldn't forcefully oppose the Vietnam War:

Only on a few occasions over the last two years has the Senate stood up as an independent body, voting to limit U.S. military involvement in this long, senseless war. A handful of fence-sitters joined then with dependable doves to pass provisions banning an extended use of U.S. ground forces in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. But there has never been enough Senate solidarity to stop funds for further participation by our soldiers, sailors, and airmen in battles that won't go away; the fence-sitters have cozied up to the President's side when measures to end our part in the Indochina war have been brought to an up or down vote....Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Democratic whip but in fact the President's man, has fudged the issue further, adding an internationally supervised ceasefire as a precondition to the cutting off of funds. Knowing that the peace coalition has not coalesced, [John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky and Frank Church of Idaho] have hoped that public opinion would crystallize to the point that the fence-sitters would feel safe on their side. However, the Senate's soft middle has yet to firm up sufficiently.

In November 1974, another pseudonymous Washington observer ("Sisyphus") praised Byrd for courage (or impertinence) befitting his hardscrabble roots:

[Nelson Rockefeller's] nomination to be Vice President started smoothly enough. He waltzed through his confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Rules Committee. Only Senator Robert Byrd, born into poverty as miserable as Rockefeller's wealth was opulent, asked persistent questions in contrast to the awe-struck, deferential questioning of the other members of the Committee.

Ralph C. Chandler's May 1978 "Ethics & Public Policy" names Byrd as a champion of the Senate's reputation:

On April 1, 1977, the United States Senate adopted an ethics code even broader than the House version, intending it by the end of the first session of the 95th Congress to cover all federal employees. Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D.-W.Va.) argued on the floor that "the necessity of the times," and the "climate created by the errant actions of a minority of public officials," demanded the Senate adopt such a code to restore public confidence in Congress.

An April 1987 editorial takes its cue from Sen. Byrd, who was no longer "the president's man" when it came to funding wars:

"An accounting is needed." This was not the president demanding that Poindexter or North step forth. It was not the secretary of state ferreting out the Sultan of Brunei's lost $10 million. It was not the secretary of defense seeking an explanatio'n from Israel of the Pollard spy case. Perhaps such questions don't occur spontaneously in the executive branch these days. It was rather the Senate majority leader, Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), speaking in the interest of the nation last month, He called for a moratorium on future funding for the contra war in Nicaragua until fundamental questions concerning U.S. policy and practice have been answered satisfactorily. While Senator Byrd's summons failed to derail the final $40 million installment previously approved by Congress for the contras this fiscal year, his demand for an accounting will define the tone of discussions in the future, especially this fall when the administration requests renewed funds for its Nicaragua war.

Opposition to irresponsible military spending was the occasion for the final appearances of Sen. Byrd in our pages, in March 2002 (an editorial, "War Budget") and April 2003 (Margaret O'Brien Steinfels's "The War So Far"). The latter quoted Byrd's opposition to the invasion of Iraq, and "the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future." (The rest of that speech is here.)Byrd may have and should have been haunted by his racist past, but his forceful stand against the Iraq war should haunt his colleagues.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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