Robert Byrd was first elected to Congress when Harry Truman was serving in the White House and segregationists held enough sway in the Senate to block even the mildest civil rights laws.
Byrd has died, at age 92, as a senator serving as an ally and champion of the nation’s first African-American president.
America’s journey was Byrd’s journey. Indeed, 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 in his youth a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his native West Virginia. Even when he came to the House, after his election in 1952, and the Senate, after his election in 1958, he served as a segregationist. He voted against the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, stances that caused significant opposition in the Democratic Caucus to his initial candidacies for leadership posts. Yet Byrd remained a Democrat, rejecting the easy road of switching, as so many other Southern and border-state Democrats did, to a Republican Party that—as part of Richard Nixon’s "Southern strategy"—was welcoming old segregationists with open arms.
His fellow Democratic senators eventually accepted the sincerity of Byrd’s rejections of his past positions and elected him Senate majority leader, a position he held until 1988, when the New York Times noted that he was leaving the post “for reasons of age." As it happened, Byrd remained in the Senate for the better part of a quarter-century more, ending his career as one of the most ardent supporters of Obama’s election and presidency.
I covered Byrd during much of that last quarter century and, like the vast majority of his fellow senators, developed an appreciation for the sincerity of the man’s rejection of the past—his own and his country’s. In many senses, Byrd’s own transformation from one senator among many to the unique figure he became in the history of the chamber and the country began during the Watergate era, when the senator’s pointed questioning of White House appointees was widely credited with having forced the opening that led to John Dean’s testimony and the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. But his final transformation came as another authoritarian president, George W. Bush, sought to draw the nation into undeclared and unnecessary war.
Byrd had supported the Vietnamese mission of presidents Johnson and Nixon and, like many senators who made the same mistake, he had come to recognize the importance of asserting a Congressional check and balance on presidential warmaking. The speeches that the senior senator delivered in opposition to Bush’s Iraq proposal were epic in character and they thrilled antiwar activists who came to understand, on Byrd’s instruction, that they were the true defenders of the Constitution.