Monday, December 28, 2009

A Tribute to Senator Robert C. Byrd

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.


Kraxpelax said...
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Six said...

Interesting to hear how your grandmother overcame such adversatity. It is amazing what the human spirit is capable of when given few options otherwise.

As for Byrd,

Not knowing a whole lot about him, I spent a few minutes learning a little bit...

The guy was a racist when it was politically expediant - in his youth as you say (although he was well into his 20s and nearly 30 when he was still writing letters in support of the Klan) but at nearly 50 he was still vocally and politically opposing equal rights and desegregation. He has even more recently in his 70s and 80s opposed equal rights for homosexuals and continues to this day that opposition. Just a few years ago he was quoted explaining what exactly makes a n--- in his mind - a word he seemed ALL too comfortable using. He also has voted for and supports making English the 'official' language, and overall his votes would indicate someone who is anti-immigrant on par with Lou Dobbs - in fact, I bet his voting record on Immigration would read like a cheat-sheet for Lou Dobbs immigration/immigrant position.

You say he is for 'Freedom of Religion' however he has joined the religious right and many Democrats such as Barak Obama in citing the bible as his reason for pushing his religious beliefs through and opposing gay marriage and denying equal rights to homosexual couples. He opposes homosexuals serving in our military. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU - who are a bit cooky themselves) rates him at a 0%!! He is up there with Michele Bachman! Ha!

You also mention his support for a womans right to choose - although that is only something he has done in his very late years... during the 1970s and 1980s it appears he opposed a womans right to choose - not to mention his opposition to Affirmative Action. Sure - NOW he supports it when quite literally EVERYONE in his party supports it and it would be a political death-sentence as a Democrat not to support a womans right to choose.

The guy recieved a 20% by the ACLU on civil rights - the same score as Trent Lott did!!!

He also has an awful track record on the 'War on Drugs' supporting terrible legislation that puts more non-violent offenders for longer sentences in jails than in the treatment that they need - costing taxpayers billions more and contributing to the highest prison population on the planet.

He has been awful in forign policy too - supporting embargos against Cuba, opposing free trade just about everywhere including China, just about all of S. America and many places in Asia, while at the same time supporting just about every trade saction/embargo presented to him.

It seems to me he has a long track record of barely towing his party line when the weight of his party and political future depends on it. He has not evolved - only made concessions to preserve his seat.

Interesting choice to claim as a hero for someone who presents herself as being such a 'progressive'.

I do take some comfort his one seemingly brave stand againt his peers he has ever taken in his early and consistent (unsuccessful) opposition to the illegal war in Iraq and opposition to the absurdity and violation of civil rights of the creation the Dept of 'Homeland Security' and also his opposition to the Patriot Act (while people such as Obama support it) - but outside of that the guy really has done nothing impressive except keep breathing for 92+ years. What has the guy actually done? What meaningful, historical piece of legislation has the guy ever truly, actively been a part of?

He votes with the political winds of his party and I suspect the majority of his life - and clearly still on some levels - at his core he is a racist and hates homosexuals (based on HIS votes letters and speeches).

Not much love from me on this guy... said...

I, too, have great respect for Senator Byrd. I realize that he was probably racist. However, I read an article he wrote for the NY Review of Books several years ago, during the Bush regime. I really loved it. He was bemoaning the fact that Congress just followed the White House on everything. He remembered when Kennedy was president and the Congress was skeptical. He had to work for everything. And the Congress was controlled by the same party. There was a lot more to the article, but unfortunately that's all I remember.

Citizen Jane said...

Well, Six, Senator Byrd may not always please libertarians or progressives, but for a Dixiecrat who grew up when lynching was still popular in the South, I think he's come a long way. And he's been willing to learn and grow and to be transparent about changing his mind--which is more than we can say about many people!