It had been fifty years since a member of the United States Senate last lay in repose in the Senate chamber.
In 1959, Senator Robert C. Byrd's first full year in the U.S. Senate, a senator by the name of William Langer of North Dakota was allowed to lay in repose in the Senate chamber following his November death. Perhaps Senator Byrd, who passed away last Monday at the age of ninety-two, and Senator Langer had more in common than simply the status afforded them in death. Though not entirely of his own making, "Wild Bill" Langer survived a political scandal that would derail most political careers. Fraud and corruption charges were met with a rather colorful response. Langer was removed from the Governor's mansion, re-elected to the Governor's mansion and then went on to serve in the United States Senate. Like Langer, Byrd overcame an early indiscretion that would forever haunt his political ambition, career and conscience--his membership in and association with the Ku Klux Klan.
At Senator Byrd's memorial service on Friday, Byrd's past was not ignored. Briefly mentioned by former President Clinton, an irony in itself, by the simple statement that "there are no perfect people; there are certainly no perfect politicians." Byrd's history as a former member of the KKK has been mentioned by pundits on every side of the political spectrum. Pundits and politicians alike have not let Byrd's flirtation with the KKK go unmentioned. However, while some pundits like Glenn Beck feel it in some way demeans Byrd in death by mentioning his own personal history, make no mistake that Byrd had come to terms with his own "youthful mistakes" as he once referred to them:
"I have lived with the weight of my own youthful mistakes my whole life, like a millstone around my neck, and I accept that those mistakes will forever be mentioned when people talk about me. I believe I have learned from those mistakes... The people will never trust you if you can't honestly admit your own mistakes." (Letter to a New President, 2004)What is unfortunate is that a man like Glenn Beck, with his own youthful demons and mistake-laden past, cannot appreciate the absolute change of heart that took place with Robert Byrd. What is unfortunate is that everyone could not have approached Byrd's past the way the late Senator Ted Kennedy did. In her moving tribute at Friday's memorial on behalf of her late husband, Vicki Kennedy said, "his friend Ted Kennedy had no patience for those who focused on the distant past."
Byrd's political career was riddled with votes that would later be atoned for. His vote against welfare recipients in the District of Columbia would be answered by numerous votes in support of the country's poorest citizens. Byrd's early votes against civil rights, including a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, would be atoned for decades later with votes in favor of all forms of civil rights and for the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday. Additionally, Byrd's votes against many of President Johnson's domestic programs known as Johnson's "Great Society" were atoned for as recently as this past Christmas when he entered the Senate chamber in his wheelchair to cast what many have called the decisive vote for health insurance reform. The story of Robert C. Byrd was one of redemption.
While Senator Robert C. Byrd's memorial service Friday looked like a proverbial who's who of the Democratic Party, today a small service took place at Arlington, Virginia's Memorial Baptist Church. Away from the cameras and the crowd that often accompanies the political heavyweights that attended Friday's celebration, Byrd was laid to rest in Arlington County, Virginia beside his beloved wife Erma following today's service.
For just over one-fifth of the time the United States Senate has been in existence, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia served in it. As Marc Johnson of the Johnson Post recently noted, Byrd's service saw "Korea, McCarthy, the Cold War, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Vietnam, civil rights, Nixon, Watergate, the rise of China, the end of the Soviet Union, radical Islam, Iraq and Afghanistan." Robert Byrd outlasted even Fidel Castro in public office.
I've often been asked what drew me to Senator Byrd, why I developed a particular affection for him. Perhaps the answer to this question is the very thing that has made this post so many days in the making. My affection for Senator Byrd began when I was a senior in high school. While this nation was preparing to invade Iraq, an unprovoked attack, I was preparing to graduate from high school. I, like many Americans, was not oblivious to the fact that another war, the second we had begun as a nation while I was in high school, would inevitably cost this nation a great price--the lives of young Americans. While this nation geared up for the invasion, the only voice of opposition I heard was that of Robert C. Byrd. To this day, I can remember hearing for the first time his speech "We Stand Passively Mute," challenging the logic (or lack thereof) behind the invasion. Not only was Senator Byrd against the war, he reminded his colleagues of his support for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and how horribly wrong the Vietnam War went as time went on. His voice of reason was solidified by his knowledge of history. His opposition to the war continued as lives were lost and my generation suffered the consequences of an ill-timed and ill-conceived war.
"On what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq -- a population, I might add, of which over 50% is under age 15 -- this chamber is silent. On what is possibly only days before we send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare -- this chamber is silent...We are truly "sleepwalking through history." In my heart of hearts I pray that this great nation and its good and trusting citizens are not in for a rudest of awakenings."Unfortunately, we were in for the "rudest of awakenings" and we still face the consequences of those actions.
I've often spoke of Byrd's devotion to the United States Constitution with nothing but the utmost respect. I've carried a copy of the Constitution around with me due to Byrd's example and I have been faithful to that Constitution long before the "We the People" craze that recently enveloped this nation. Byrd's devotion to the Constitution is something that would serve this country well if every politician were as devoted to it as he was.
With his dear Erma once again, the son of a coal miner and the beloved son of West Virginia is at rest. His complete love for his home and his unyielding support for his constituency will never again be matched in the United States Senate. A mere mortal has left this life with the deepest appreciation of his state, a populous that has said in their parting with him, "well done, our good and faithful servant." That alone is the true measure of this man.