A Venerable Sage Of the Senate
Given Robert C. Byrd’s long life and venerable career in the United States Senate, I think it somewhat unfair to begin remembrances by reminding us that he was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, or that he conducted a marathon filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. I am not suggesting that we white wash and forget these transgressions against the African American community – the way Armstrong Williams and other Republican obscurantist attempted to do with Strom Thurman – but the simple recognition that a man who lived as long as Senator Byrd should have his life evaluated in segments. And final judgment should be based on what he was at the end of his life not at the beginning.
Robert Byrd lived to be 92 years old, which means that he came of age during what Henry Luce dubbed “The American Century,” a century which began in the twilight of an American Victory over Spain – one of the great imperial powers of the old world – at the end of the 19th century. Hence the US entered the Twentieth Century full of vim, vigor, piss and vinegar; feeling its oats and determined to make a difference in the world.
It was the dawn of American Empire and the age of Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Rider and hero of San Jaun Hill, who would become the symbol of Anglo-Saxon prowess. President Monroe may have declared the Caribbean Sea an American lake and Latin America our backyard, but Teddy made it real with his soft talk and big stick. Teddy was certain of the superiority of American ideals and industrial genius, and all Anglo-Saxon males in America would thenceforth be indoctrinated with this world view.
Born of very humble origins in the coal mining region of West Virginia during World War I, only 17 years into the twentieth century, Byrd, like my father, was a shipyard welder during world War II, the war that made America the most powerful nation in the world. Like most people he was molded by the ideas, values, mores and folkways of his time. And as a son of West Virginia he was a racist southern redneck for a great part of his life. But he became much more than that.
The twist and turns, contradictions and ironies, of Senator Byrd’s life are worthy of a Shakespeare, perhaps that’s why he loved the wit and wisdom of Sweet William so passionately – reciting the Bard’s lyrical insights into human virtue and folly to help his colleagues navigate the ship of state through troubled waters. He was a prolific path breaking historian of the Senate, delivering a hundred lectures on the Roman Senate upon which the US Senate modeled; his four volume history of that body won the Henry Adams Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government as “an outstanding contribution to research in the history of the Federal Government.” He was also awarded prizes by the prestigious American Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians. Senator Byrd could also recite the entire US Constitution by heart at the drop of a hat. That’s why generations of US Senators sought his counsel.
Needless to say, so long and consequential a life cannot be accounted for here. That is a task for the legions of professional historians who shall energetically sift through every detail of his life and work. But I shall remember Robert Byrd as the able politician who took care of his constituents; the seer who saw the impending disaster of the Iraq invasion and courageously opposed it; and the repentant Dixiecrat who apologized to his black countrymen for his racist transgressions and helped elect America’s first black President – calling Barack Obama “a shining young statesman, who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure in Iraq.” I shall also remember him as a principled politician who refused to run to the ranks of the Republicans the way all the other Southern racist had done!
Barack Obama calls you friend Senator, and I cannot be more royal than the king! So go softly into the gentle night and rest in peace. For there is much to celebtrate in your half century of service in the Senate….and we will not see your like again. As the longest serving Senator in history you have lived your dream, like Duke Ellington you loved your work so much you chose to die on the job. And, I suspect, you followed the sagely advice of the poet William Cullen Bryant in his epic vision of death, Thanatopsis:
“So Live that when thy summons come
To move to that mysterious realm
Where each shall take his chamber in the silent halls of death
Thou go not like the quarry slave at night
Scourged to his dungeon
But sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust
Approach thy grave like the man
Who Wraps the drapery of his couch about him
And lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Harlem, New York
July 1, 2o10