Steve Kettmann: Byrd, Despite Dark Past, May Have Been the Last Great U.S. Senator





[Steve Kettmann is an American writer living in Berlin who writes a weekly column on politics for the Berliner Zeitung. He has reported from more than 35 countries for publications including ForeignPolicy.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, the New Republic, Washington Monthly, Salon.com, Wired.com and Motherjones.com, and was a finalist for the 2001 Online Journalism Award in commentary.]

I hope the passing of Robert Byrd, longest-serving Senator in the history of this country, will inspire at least a brief consideration of what made him great -- and what his legacy tells us about the politics of today.

Byrd was a flawed man. He understood for many decades that when this day came, his last on earth, his obituaries would all include mention of his membership in the Ku Klux Klan more than sixty years ago.

I may have been one of the last ones to discuss this chapter in his life with Byrd during the many private conversations I had with him in his Senate office as we worked together on a book, published in 2008 as "Letter to a New President" and excerpted right here at Huffington Post.

Here's what Byrd had to say about that: "I have lived with the weight of my own youthful mistakes my whole life, like a millstone around my neck, and I accept that those mistakes will forever be mentioned when people talk about me. I believe I have learned from those mistakes. I know I've tried very hard to do so."

Byrd did not use the English language the way that other politicians do. He loved books and for years his idea of the ideal break from his duties in the Senate was to spend his weeks off digging through books. He had a rococo speaking style that some mocked, but it was all his, though it very much drew on the tradition of southern oratory, and there was nothing feigned about his erudition.

He was morally flawed, yes, but he believed absolutely in our better natures and always sought to better himself and to fight for what he saw as the best in our Constitution. The New York Times obit by Adam Clymer claimed in its first paragraph, maybe with tongue in cheek, that Byrd always fought for the "primacy" of the legislative branch, but this is incorrect. Byrd fought for the balance of power between the three branches. As he told me in one of our conversations for the book, describing a meeting in the Soviet Union with Leonid Brezhnev, Byrd told him that in the U.S. system of government, the President has neither more nor less power than the Congress, which are "equal in every way under our Constitution." Byrd opposed what he saw as power grabs from the executive branch, and worked to thwart them whether the President was named Reagan or Bush or Clinton or Obama.

Above all, though, I'd like to mention Byrd's series of speeches arguing against blundering into the Iraq War all based on misconceptions, half-truths and worse. During the work on the book, the late Senator Ted Kennedy invited me into his office for a private talk about Byrd and he singled out Byrd's leadership in opposing the Iraq War.

"His eloquence and passion and his leadership on this will be memorable," Kennedy said. " My sense is that so much of that memory went back to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and where the United States got started on the war in Vietnam and they just couldn't end it. The Congress couldn't end it. The people couldn't end it. Presidents didn't end it. In '68, you had candidates to end the war and the government, the President, promised it, and it still went on until '75, still fighting in '72 or '73.

So in that sense, the fact that he had this historic perspective and awareness is something that really served the country in a very, very important way. Too many others were sort of taken up with the passion of the moment."

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network