Monday, June 28, 2010

Robert C. Byrd

Robert C. ByrdSenator Robert Byrd's service in the Congress which stretched for almost 60 years represents the best and worst of congress.  Byrd was mostly an autodidact.  He grew up very poor in West Virginia, actually losing his mother when he was less than one year old (on Armistice Day in 1918) and was farmed out to an aunt.  His early history included a lot of jobs including a welder, meat cutter and salesman.  He got into politics early and represented his area effectively.  He was a member of the Klu Klux Klan (although later in life he regretted the decision).  In one biography he said he got into politics at the recommendation of the Grand Klaxon of his Klan unit.

He had a profound respect for the Constitution and for the Senate as a body.  He studied the rules of the body carefully.   At times that served him well.  When the Clinton impeachment proceeding was gathering steam he crafted the notion of a censure which recognized that a) Clinton's offenses were indeed serious but b) did not rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors."  When some democrats tried to condemn Nixon's first Supreme Court nominee (Clement Haynsworth, who was a distinguished jurist) Byrd voted for the nominee, knowing that the democrat's charges were bunk.

He voted against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.  And often took the floor to lecture the Senate and the country on the wisdom of the separation of powers.   As his service extended he became a more traditional liberal.  Yet, every once in a while he would lapse into that historic figure of the 1940s with some outrageous remark suggesting he had not adjusted.

And yet, during his tenure as Appropriations Chair he moved tons of pork to West Virginia. By one count he was responsible for bringing $2.6 billion to West Virginia between 2002 and 2008 - that amounts to just under $1500 per person. He was a member of the club who used his club privileges for good and questionable purposes.   He could be imperious and pedantic.

What intrigued me the most was that he was a pretty good Bluegrass fiddler. This is a clip from when he played on the Grand Old Opry.  He released an album in 1978 which I think is no longer available.

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