For decades, young Senate aides have elbowed one another in the ribs, prepared to giggle when Sen. Robert Byrd came to the floor to speak. Some were known to dial his pompous answering machine just for laughs. He is a living, breathing caricature of the politician from a hillbilly-image state overcompensating to display pseudo-erudition, dragging Cicero and Shakespeare into debates over highway construction.
That may work in West Virginia, where Byrd, with 50-plus years of elected experience on Capitol Hill, now holds Strom Thurmond's honorary place as the legislator's equivalent of the Guest Who Won't Leave. (Or, if you prefer, think of this man as the legislative equivalent of Helen Thomas.) But inside the Beltway, Byrd is usually dismissed as an over-the-hill crank, a crazy uncle in the cellar, someone Democrats still air-kiss, but don't really respect.
Does that sound too harsh? One odd way Washington pays tribute to legislators of great power and influence is to take their utterances seriously -- especially their misstatements. See the Trent Lott debacle for instruction. But when Byrd, a former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, sat down on "Fox News Sunday" in 2001 and said, "There are white niggers; I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time," nobody cared. The silence said: That's just crazy old Byrd. No news story there.
So it's a more than a little weird to see him get the hero treatment from the liberal media, all for being dreadfully wrong about the war in Iraq. Time magazine has championed Byrd as an "overnight Internet sensation" for his floor speeches attacking the Bush administration as "reckless and arrogant" in the war effort. The headline for the hotheaded Bush-basher? "Lionized in Winter."
Time's Matt Cooper raves that "due to his fierce opposition to the Iraq war, Byrd at 85 has become an Internet icon with a rash of young and liberal admirers, which is ironic given that Byrd fought civil rights in the '60s and, as is often noted, briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan. Once known as a hawk ('I was the last man out of Vietnam,' he says), Byrd has become the Senate's new Paul Wellstone." That, in liberal media circles, is high praise indeed.