Senator Byrd: Goodbye to the Old Gasbag

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

Senator Robert Byrd

We're not supposed to speak ill of the dead, so let's remember some good things about the late Senator Robert C. Byrd.

He was diligent, intelligent and resilient, a self-taught child of the dirt-poor hollows of West Virginia who became the longest-serving Congressman in U.S. history. He was the undisputed master of Senate procedure, a legislative workhorse in a body increasingly dominated by party-line show horses. He was big enough to admit some of his mistakes, like his stint as an exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan, and he was never too old to change some of his ways, finally supporting efforts to address climate change and allow gays in the military during his last year of life. He was a strident critic of the Iraq War when that was still a courageous thing to be. He cast his vote for health care reform by saying, "Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy!" — a lovely gesture no matter what you think of the bill.

He also seemed extremely devoted to his wife Erma.

O.K. Now can we speak ill of the dead?

Sorry, but when Byrd lies in state in his beloved Senate today, plenty of his colleagues will share over-the-top reminiscences about the elder statesman who quoted Cicero while defending their prerogatives and protecting their pork. He'll be eulogized as the soul of the Senate, the embodiment of the institution, the hero of the world's greatest deliberative body and so on. That's fair, I suppose, because the Senate sucks. And so did the politics of Robert C. Byrd, an imperious and egomaniacal reactionary, an anachronism in a three-piece suit.

I'm not just talking about his segregationist politics — although that's a good place to start. "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 wrote to Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi in 1944.

Note not only the racism, but also the logorrheic flag-waving sycophancy; as Byrd admitted in his hilariously awful 2005 autobiography, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, he joined the Klan for suck-up careerist reasons. And while he sometimes tried to describe his foray into white supremacy as a kind of youthful indiscretion, he was 46 years old when he filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was only later that racism became a liability for ambitious Democratic politicians, and it was only later that Byrd became a civil-rights advocate of sorts.

I say "of sorts" because Byrd's 832-page exercise in gasbaggery includes a creepy passage in which he describes white ethnics as "former minorities" who "sought no special status," implicitly contrasting them with modern minorities who "push and shove and demand something for nothing." When Byrd broke the Senate's longevity record, I poked fun at that passage along with others that decried "multiculturalism" and compared cities to "the jungles of Africa." But if Byrd's memoirs suggested some lingering discomfort with diversity, they revealed a much more visceral distaste for modernity, a fierce nostalgia for "the days of my boyhood," when America was great, kids had manners, the funny papers were funny and even Coca-Cola was "a more zestful and invigorating drink."

Uh, yeah — it was made with cocaine back then.

It was no accident that a traditionalist with such an instinctive aversion to change became such a passionate defender of the U.S. Senate, the most powerful and consistent obstacle to change in America. Byrd actually wrote a four-volume history of the institution that gives 2 million West Virginians the same power as 38 million Californians. (He also wrote a history of the Roman Senate; it was always easy to imagine him in a toga, practicing his windy speeches in front of a mirror.) He saw the Senate as an elite club of gentleman solons, putting the brakes on the populist whims of the House, just as the Founding Fathers envisioned it. But today, the Senate puts the brakes on just about everything, thanks largely to the filibuster, the secret hold and other antimajoritarian prerogatives that were never envisioned by the Founding Fathers and that found their staunchest advocate in Senator Byrd. It was fitting that with unemployment sky-high, especially in West Virginia, Byrd's death scuttled a bill that would extend unemployment benefits; it now has "only" 59 votes.

In recent years, Byrd complained that the Republican minority was using the filibuster as a partisan cudgel to produce gridlock; he argued that 60 votes should be required only in extraordinary circumstances. (Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964?) And it's true that Byrd was a dealmaker. Washington's hyper-partisanship is not his fault. But really, the omnipresent threat of the filibuster as well as the secret hold is the logical extension of Byrd's haughty crusade for senatorial prerogatives against presidential power. It has made every Senator a king, with the power to rescue or derail the President's program — or at least secure some goodies for his vote.

This was the other great cause of Byrd's career: the earmark. He famously promised to be West Virginia's billion-dollar industry, and he kept his word. That's why there's the Robert C. Byrd Highway, Robert C. Byrd Freeway, Robert C. Byrd Cancer Research Center, Robert C. Byrd Rural Health Center, Robert C. Byrd Federal Building, Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse, Robert C. Byrd Academic and Technology Center, Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center, Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing and a few dozen other pork-barrel projects named for the former chairman of the Appropriations Committee. At the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, academics can study how he moved the Bureau of Public Debt to West Virginia — and made sure it remained relevant.

Meanwhile, West Virginia is still America's second poorest state. It should be Vermont with warmer weather; instead, it's Mississippi without a river. Byrd helped turn it into a welfare state, dependent on one man with a pompadour and a gavel.

Byrd's doorstop of a memoir seems to chronicle every one of his visits to West Virginia farm groups and Kiwanis clubs and universities that gave him awards after enjoying his largesse. He proudly recounts all the "rousing" and "enthusiastic" responses to his speeches. ("I lifted the mood of the crowd to soaring heights.") Of course they were rousing. They liked his handouts! Byrd was never corrupt in the bribe-taking sense, but there was something unsettling about the pleasure he took in being West Virginia's sugar daddy. He never really seemed to believe that any other children of the coalfields could succeed without his help. He believed he was the indispensable man.

The danger of the modern Senate is that its members really have become indispensable. After the worst financial meltdown since the Depression, Congress can't pass financial reforms unless they're acceptable to Scott Brown. With unemployment raging, Congress can't pass a jobs bill until Ben Nelson is O.K. with it. When a single Senator objects to a nominee for the National Labor Relations Board, the President can't fill vacancies throughout the Executive Branch. It's hard to get anything done — except send pork back home. The Senate is still functioning smoothly in that respect.

And as dysfunctional as the modern Senate may be, it's still an excellent place to work if you like to feel important. There happen to be quite a few Senators like that. Today, they'll say a lot of nice things about Byrd.