BYRD’S PASSAGE: Robert Byrd, who died on June 28 at 92, was born less than a lifetime after the founders of the American experiment. The longest-serving senator breathed his first just ninety-one years after Thomas Jefferson breathed his last, and Byrd’s transit of the arc of history provides one of the most redemptive stories of this nation’s progress. Infamously, the West Virginia Democrat was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth, and as a senator in 1964 he filibustered the Civil Rights Act for fourteen hours—decisions he would later apologize for. His evolution began during the Watergate battles, when he turned on the lawless administration of Richard Nixon— who had considered nominating Byrd for the Supreme Court—and developed the line of questioning that led to John Dean’s explosive testimony and the end of Nixon’s presidency.
Byrd’s evolution continued in the wake of 9/11, when he became an eloquent antiwar critic of the Bush administration on the Senate floor. Speaking of the impending invasion of Iraq in early 2003, he warned, “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.” Byrd decried the complacency of the Senate, declaring as the war progressed that “the right to ask questions, debate and dissent is under attack. The drums of war are beaten ever louder in an attempt to drown out those who speak of our predicament in stark terms. Even in the Senate, our history and tradition of being the world’s greatest deliberative body is being snubbed.” The snubbing continues, but those who honor the senator’s legacy would do well to recognize the wisdom the founders— and Byrd—saw in saying no to presidents, regardless of party, and especially in times of war. JOHN NICHOLS
THE KING BEATER: NASCAR legend Richard Petty is known as “the King” in North Carolina. So when he ran for secretary of state as a Republican in 1996, everyone presumed he was unbeatable—until he lost by more than 200,000 votes to State Senator Elaine Marshall. Defeating Petty should have put Marshall on national radar screens, but when she decided to run for the Senate this year, Washington Democrats handpicked their own candidate, Cal Cunningham, a telegenic Iraq War vet, to run against her. That plan backfired when Marshall routed Cunningham in the June 22 primary runoff, setting up a November showdown with incumbent Senator Richard Burr.
It was a victory for the progressive groups that unsuccessfully backed Bill Halter over Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, including MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, which supported Marshall. A 65-year-old former teacher, craft store owner and lawyer, Marshall is not exactly an outsider, having served in elected office for a decade and a half. But she ran a savvy anti-establishment, progressive-populist campaign in the primary, defeating what she called “a committee of Washington insiders” by touting her oppo- sition to the surge in Afghanistan and support for healthcare legislation that included a public option and Wall Street reform.