I never met my paternal grandfather. He died of “black lung,” a disease of miners, when my father was only two years old. At 38, my grandmother was left with four young children and no income.
Back then, there were no disability benefits, no state assistance for families, no food stamps, no Social Security. Grandma survived and kept her children together by virtue of a strong back and fierce determination. She got a job in a commercial laundry, where she spent up to sixteen hours a day standing on a concrete floor, steaming and pressing bedding for hotels and clothing for those wealthy enough to afford the service. She ended up with arthritic knees and varicose veins, but she never got so sick she couldn’t work.
Born in the coal mining country of West Virginia, Robert Byrd grew up knowing about hardship and desperation—about how important a job is to a family and how some jobs wear people out when they’re young. A man of compassion, Byrd has spent over fifty years in the Senate (and seven years in the House before that) speaking his mind, voting his conscience, and doing his best to make a hard life a little easier for folks. Representing one of the poorest states in the nation, he understands the need for reliable, affordable health care.
Senator Byrd is a man of integrity; that is to say, he’s consistent in upholding the principles in which he believes—including, to the greatest extent possible, states’ and individual rights. Sometimes, values clash, however, and people of integrity learn, grow, and change. Largely because of his commitment to states’ rights, Byrd joined in filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After four more years of debate about principles of individual and human rights, however, he voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
An intelligent, educated man, he can tolerate uncertainty; intellectually honest, he’s able to both admit his own mistakes and embrace change when new evidence presents itself. He joined the anti-communist but rabidly racist Ku Klux Klan in his youth; he has never denied but often apologized for his support of prejudice and intolerance during that time. A supporter of freedom of and respect for organized religion, he also supports women’s reproductive rights. At 92, he’s probably about the only man in West Virginia who can get away with encouraging the coal industry to embrace the modern world by acknowledging the realities of climate change and relinquishing the practice of lopping off mountain tops to create open-pit mines.
Robert Byrd has always chosen being truthful over being “politically correct.” Yet since his career began in 1952, he’s never lost an election. He’s maintained a 98 percent attendance record in the Senate and cast nearly 20,000 votes. The people of his state don’t always agree with him, but clearly they respect the fact that he works hard in their behalf.
Of the many fallacies that pass for rational thinking in America these days, overgeneralization is one of the most popular. As part of America’s sharp turn toward cynicism in recent years, it’s become more fashionable than ever to lump all politicians together and tar them with same brush. However, politicians are like anyone else: there are cowards and heroes among them. As far as I’m concerned, Robert C. Byrd is one of the heroes.