And so much for the idea that Washington has become calcified by a permanent political class. Better to celebrate the fact that he cast his 18,000th vote in 2007.
And then, of course, there is the issue of race. The common interpretation is that Byrd's is a story of redemption. A one-time Exalted Cyclops of the KKK, Byrd recruited some 150 members to the chapter he led -- that's led, not "joined," by the way. (If you doubt his commitment to the cause, try to recruit 150 people to do anything, never mind have them pay a hefty fee up front.)
Byrd filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As Bruce Bartlett notes in his book "Wrong on Race," Byrd knew he would fail, but he stood on bedrock principle that integration was evil. His individual filibuster, the second longest in American history, fills 86 pages of fine print in the Congressional Record. "Only a true believer," writes Bartlett, "would ever undertake such a futile effort."
Unlike some segregationists, Byrd's arguments rested less on the principle of states' rights than on his conviction that black people were simply biologically inferior.
Sure, he lied for years about his repudiation of the Klan. Sure, he was still referring to "white niggers" as recently as 2001. But everyone agrees his change of heart is sincere. And for all I know it was.
What's odd is what passes for proof of his sincerity. Yes, he voted to make Martin Luther King Day a holiday. But to listen to some eulogizers, the real proof came in the fact that he supported ever more lavish government programs -- and opposed the Iraq war. Am I alone in taking offense at the idea that supporting big government and opposing the Iraq war somehow count as proof of racial enlightenment?
Robert Byrd was a complicated man, but the explanation for the outsized celebration of his career strikes me as far more simple. He was a powerful man who abandoned his bigoted principles in order to keep power. And his party loved him for it.