Odd praise from Byrd brains

Posted: May 30, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Cooper found "the Byrd renaissance began" after a Feb. 12 speech that delighted the Bush haters. "Byrd's words lit up the Internet. Wes Boyd, the head of MoveOn.org, a liberal group that opposed the war, received 15 copies of the speech from fellow activists in 72 hours after it was delivered. ... Just last week, Byrd drew another Internet throng, declaring that Bush had lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and would get caught: 'This house of cards, built of deceit, will fall.'" Time underscored the point by putting these words in bold under its Byrd photo.

Time didn't give its readers more than these speech McNuggets, and in so omitting, obscured why anti-war radicals enjoyed them so much. In the Feb. 12 speech, Byrd raised every ghost and goblin that could spook us during the Iraq war: massive nuclear proliferation, retaliation against Israel followed by an Israeli nuclear response, disruption of the world oil supply leading to a "worldwide recession." He called the war policy an "extremely destabilizing and dangerous foreign policy debacle." This is where Byrd and Wellstone match. They were both wrong. Byrd didn't have to get any of these forecasts right to be celebrated as an Internet sensation.

The "house of cards" speech on May 21 includes Byrd spitting on the notion of American liberation of Iraq: "In fact, if the situation in Iraq is the result of 'liberation,' we may have set the cause of freedom back 200 years."

Cooper ended by praising Byrd's pompous speechifying as "bracing," and compared him to Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." There's another perspective I'd like to offer: Senator Byrd is a nut.

Presidential critics have not always been so honored in Time. When Clinton's opponents mobilized against him, when they circulated speeches on the Internet, Time called them "Clinton haters," remember? In fact, anti-Clinton politicians were maligned before they even got started. In the Dec. 6, 1996 Time, Rep. Dan Burton's ascension to the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Committee was greeted with the headline: "In the House a Zealot Talks Softly." Writer James Carney began: "the president's chief inquisitor (Torquemada, call your office) on such issues as the Democratic fundraising scandal will be a man who has never pretended to be impartial."

Yet now Byrd is hailed because he is that very picture of partiality, a lone ranting ranger willing to echo the bizarre Bush-hating Web sites. Remember this double standard when you see Time go back to trashing the Internet sensations of the right, which surely will happen.