The passing of Sen. Robert Byrd is an occasion for reflection, not just on his life but on how one particularly unsavory aspect of that life was treated whenever the subject was raised.
Recall that, at various points in his career, Byrd’s partisan colleagues elected him to the positions of senate majority whip, senate majority leader, senate minority leader, and senate president pro tempore, which placed him third in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a marginal or fringe figure nor were the positions of authority he occupied merely the result of seniority.
It is therefore curious, in a town where Republican indiscretions have no practical shelf life, that Byrd’s partisan allies and the Washington press corps repeatedly refused to delve into his activities as a long ago member of the Ku Klux Klan other than to acknowledge it as a “youthful indiscretion” and move on.
In its obituary, the Washington Post went into surprising detail as to just what those activities consisted of and how they might have shaped his career and early record as a legislator. For example:
As a young man, Mr. Byrd was an ‘exalted cyclops’ of the Ku Klux Klan. Although he apologized numerous times for what he considered a youthful indiscretion, his early votes in Congress--notably a filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act--reflected racially separatist views.
The point here is not that Byrd ended his life as a closeted racist--I never met the man--but that, because he was a Democrat, the people who make judgments about what is and what is not newsworthy chose to give him a pass, failing to subject him to a thorough discussion of his past each time he said or did something that might have alluded to it. This was obviously the case after he used the phrase “white niggers” in a television interview on the subject of race relations in the United States during the Bush presidency--at just about the same time Mississippi Republican Trent Lott was being driven from the Senate leadership in a never-ending barrage of criticism following an unfortunate but provocative comment he made at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, the one-time Dixiecrat candidate for president of the United States. One can only imagine what the consequences would have been for Byrd’s career had he been a Republican with a similar record.
In life Byrd was a fiercely partisan figure, one who gave as good as he got and who never shied away from the prospect of tying the Senate in knots to preserve a principle he held dear, but one with a past as equally worthy, by contemporary liberal standards, of exposition. In death he has been lionized as a giant, the last of his kind and as a man who truly loved the institution in which he served longer than any other American--but which must be balanced against the more unsavory aspect of his life.