He lived a long, contentious and interesting life, but today Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is dead. He will be long remembered for two things- his membership in the KKK and his speech and vote against the war in Iraq. He was the un-appointed constitutionalist of the Senate often raising his own copy of that document during impassioned speeches on the Senate floor.
Today’s right-wingers often mention Byrd’s name and his early association with the KKK as a pejorative against all that the man did later in life- as if a person must be tattooed for life for what they believed and did in early adulthood. Byrd said of that youthful indiscretion, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times… and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.”
Byrd also joined the Southern filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1965. He claimed that his opposition was for states rights rather than racism, but only he knew if that was true or a political ploy.
It is refreshing and an example to us all that senator Byrd was able to change and denounce his earlier opinions and bigotry and then move forward in working for new legislation that helped increase his tarnished, early credibility. In 2003 Byrd was awarded with an approval rating of 100 percent for favoring the NAACP’s position in all 33 bills presented to the United States Senate regarding issues of their concern.
His criticism of George W. Bush’s plan for a preemptive invasion of Iraq was prophetic. A year prior to the day of that invasion he warned on the floor of the Senate:
“If the United States leads the charge to war in the Persian Gulf, we may get lucky and achieve a rapid victory. But then we will face a second war: a war to win the peace in Iraq. This war will last many years and will surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In light of this enormous task, it would be a great mistake to expect that this will be a replay of the 1991 war. The stakes are much higher in this conflict.”
His wise words were ignored and the prophesy came to pass. On the day of the invasion he said:
“Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination.”
Again, his belated wisdom has been proven correct.
Asked by a reporter of the more than 17,000 votes he had cast as a Senator, Byrd said he is proudest of his vote against the Iraq war resolution. Too bad that he was in the minority in that crucial vote. That time the so called wisdom of the aged did not prevail.
The mold cast of this man will never be cast again. He was unique in both what he did and what he failed to do. Yet the life and legacy of Senator Robert Byrd ought to be an example to all who have a desire to enter the political field, especially the lesson of apologizing and asking forgiveness when a political decision that was made was clearly morally wrong. Apologies by politicians these days are all-too often made to save their reelection chances rather than heart-felt pain for the agony and pain caused by the decision they made.