Bill Murchison

"The Former Klansman Who Backed Obama," was the Huffington Post's hook for its account of Sen. Robert Byrd's demise. The New York Times' website came closer to the mark: "Elected a record nine times to the Senate, Mr. Byrd, 92, championed the legislative branch and brought huge amounts of federal dollars to West Virginia."

The purposes of politics are murky and mixed: the public weal, the advancement of this-and-that, and ... and ... in Robert Byrd's case, as everyone knew but discussed only occasionally, the construction of personal empires founded on constituent gratitude.

It's very, very human. The political world works thus and always has. Julius Caesar, but for the inconvenience of a few knife wounds, could gaze upon Byrd and recognize a kindred spirit. Politics is about many things. On the top ledge is power, reinforced by longevity.

A man first elected to the Senate in 1958 -- when Lyndon Johnson ran the institution, Cokes cost a nickel, and high school girls wore long skirts and black suede loafers -- stayed there until this week. Why? Without impeaching the memory of the late senior senator from West Virginia (who, as obituaries note, belonged to the KKK during much of the 1940s), we might reflect on the obsessions of the politically mighty and the dangers to freedom those obsessions pose.

A skill all to itself, like balancing spoons on the nose, politics logically attracts those who understand and enjoy the skill. Fine. Somebody has to do it. The problem here is paradoxical: Success can breed real danger.

The danger lies in the love it creates for the instruments of success, meaning the tools of power: laws; regulations; expensive giveaways of taxpayer money in the manner of the late senator from West Virginia; the sense (from a voter's standpoint) of dependency on government favors; the accompanying sense of entitlement to government favors.

In a half century of Senate membership (not counting half a dozen years in the House), the late senator from West Virginia created a lot of grateful dependents. These for various reasons, including attachment to the rumble of federal gravy trains headed to West Virginia, maintained him in office.

So isn't that just democracy -- the sovereign people having their say? Ummmm ... yes. To a point. The point itself can be hard to see. It crops up when a public official comes to view himself as indispensable -- vital -- untouchable. Teddy Kennedy, who came to the Senate just a few years after Byrd, certainly saw himself so. He was one more the Lord had to beckon home to open up a seat for someone else.

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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