The last Dixiecrat

June 30, 2010

Sen. Robert Byrd's long public career spanned the Democratic Party's transformation from champion of Southern segregation to the party of the first Black president.

"DEAN OF the Senate." "The longest serving member of Congress." "The Senate's historian." "Defender of the legislative branch." "Lover of the Constitution."

These were the snippets of headlines that tried to summarize the six-decade career of West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who died June 28 at the age of 92. Like most tributes, these tended to honor the Byrd of recent years, rather than the Byrd of his earlier career.

President Obama's statement was typical:

Senator Byrd's story was uniquely American. He was born into wrenching poverty, but educated himself to become an authoritative scholar, respected leader and unparalleled champion of our Constitution. He scaled the summit of power, but his mind never strayed from the people of his beloved West Virginia. He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time.

This praise obscured a darker chapter in Byrd's career. If that part of the story were being told, the headlines might have described Byrd as "the last Dixiecrat."

Byrd's public career was long enough to span the entire period of transformation of the Democratic Party from the champion of Southern segregation to the party of the first Black president. His passing should be a reminder that the current incarnation of the Republican Party--grounded firmly to its base in Southern reaction--actually dates to an earlier era when it was the Democrats who whistled Dixie.

BYRD WAS born poor and worked odd jobs through the Second World War. During the war, he joined his local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Although he later tried to downplay his role, his fellow Klansmen unanimously chose him as leader of his chapter. In this era, he wrote to segregationist Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.):

I shall never fight in the armed forces 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, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.

Sen. Robert Byrd
Sen. Robert Byrd

Later, a Klan higher-up recruited Byrd to run for the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946. Byrd says he was told: "You have a talent for leadership, Bob...The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation." Byrd wrote in his 2005 autobiography, "Suddenly, lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities! I was only 23 or 24 years old, and the thought of a political career had never really hit me. But strike me that night, it did."

Byrd spent six years in the West Virginia legislature before moving to the U.S. House in 1952, and ultimately to the U.S. Senate in 1959. As he emerged as a figure in the federal political arena, he constantly attempted to portray his Klan membership as a youthful indiscretion.

In 1997, he called the Klan an "albatross" that "inhibit[s] your operations in the political arena." He didn't fully renounce and denounce the Klan until the last decade of his life, when, in 2005, he conceded, "I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America."

But if Byrd's Klan membership was in the past, his segregationist and "states' rights" views were in the present throughout his first decade and a half in the Senate. Byrd filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for 18 hours before voting against it. He voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

He voted against seating Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice of the Supreme Court. He thus became the only senator to vote against both Black nominees to the Supreme Court--the liberal Marshall and the conservative Clarence Thomas.

Yet in 2008, Byrd endorsed Barack Obama for president--but only after the West Virginia primary, where Hillary Clinton defeated Obama.

Byrd often explained that his changed views owed to his religious faith. But as a Washington Post review of his 2005 autobiography pointed out, the truth was more calculated--he realized that he would have to stow his segregationist past if he had any hope of playing a national role in the Democratic Party after it jettisoned its Dixiecrat wing following the 1960s.

Unlike other Southern Democrats, like Sens. Strom Thurmond or Richard Shelby, Byrd didn't migrate to the Republicans. West Virginia's strong union tradition and dedication to the New Deal preserved it as one of the most reliably Democratic states until the 21st century. So Byrd moved from Dixiecrat to moderate-to-conservative Democrat.

He voted increasingly with the Northern mainstream of the party, while retaining his reactionary views on abortion, affirmative action and LGBT rights. In 1996, he called gay marriage "a sneak attack on society by encoding this aberrant behavior in legal form" and cited the Bible, rather than the Constitution, as his authority.

AS BYRD clocked up seniority, he moved up the ranks of Democrats, from secretary of the party conference to majority whip (a position for which he contended with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy) to leader of Senate Democrats (whether in the majority or minority) from 1977 to 1989.

Looking for a more telegenic face for the party, the Senate Democrats dumped Byrd for Sen. George Mitchell of Maine in 1989. Considering that Mitchell--President Obama's current Middle East envoy--is one of the dullest people in the public eye, Byrd's colleagues must have really disliked him.

Byrd's consolation prize, becoming chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, gave him the chance to earn the nickname that his detractors gave him: "King of Pork." While a Robert C. Byrd Highway, two Robert C. Byrd federal buildings, the Robert C. Byrd Freeway, the Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism, the Robert C. Byrd Drive and the Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center may seem excessive, at least Byrd could justify these on the grounds of bringing jobs to his poor, rural state.

Besides bringing home the bacon, Byrd was, for decades, Big Coal's biggest champion in the Senate. He earned a eulogy from the United Mineworkers of America for his votes in support of coal miners and their health care. But at the same time, he was, until only the last year, a climate change denier and scourge to environmentalists. In 1999, when a federal judge outlawed mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, Byrd tried to pass legislation to overturn the ban.

For much of the last two decades, Byrd's public persona was enmeshed in his eccentricities--his fairly competent fiddling, his mastery of the parliamentary arcana of the Senate, and his long speeches quoting Shakespeare and ancient Roman philosophers. Only in 2002 and 2003, in the run-up to the Bush administration's war in Iraq, did his speeches become YouTube sensations.

He likened President Bush to the main character of Hans Christian Andersen's story about the emperor with no clothes. He scolded his colleagues for jumping on the Bush administration's war wagon: "On this February day, as this nation stands at the brink of battle, every American on some level must be contemplating the horrors of war. Yet, this chamber is, for the most part, silent--ominously, dreadfully silent."

He, like Ted Kennedy, voted against authorizing the war. And he, like Kennedy, later said that he counted that vote among the most important of the thousands he cast.

Byrd saw the vote against the war as a vote to defend the prerogatives of the Congress against the executive branch and the "imperial presidency." On this point, he wasn't entirely consistent. For example, he voted for the 2001 USA Patriot Act, one of the biggest executive power grabs in a generation. He later said he regretted that vote.

Although the last years of his political career were apparently filled with regrets, he never regretted his defense of the U.S. Senate as an institution, and its "noble" traditions, such as the filibuster, where a minority of senators can block a vote on a piece of legislation even if it has majority support. For decades, attempts to pass popular, progressive reforms to health, education, labor and civil rights laws have died at hands of conservative filibusters. Or attempts at progressive reform have been weakened to the point of irrelevance to win the votes of holdout senators.

So it was ironic that Byrd's death left Democrats scrambling for their 60th vote for financial regulatory reform in the Senate--and looking to make even more concessions to Wall Street to get it.

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