It is a good rule of thumb not to speak ill of the dead. But what to do when a man is celebrated beyond the limits of decorum or common sense? Must we stay silent as others celebrate the beauty and splendor of the emperor's invisible clothes?
You probably know why I ask the question. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of the Senate in American history, died Monday. It was truly a remarkable career. But what's more remarkable is how he has been lionized by the champions of liberalism.
On Thursday, Byrd's colleagues took the unusual step of honoring him with a special service on the Senate floor, where he would lay in repose -- with some irony -- on the Lincoln Catafalque, the bier used to hold the slain body of the president who freed the slaves. The irony stems from the fact that for much of Byrd's life, his allegiances were with Lincoln's opponents in that effort. More on that in a moment.
Not long ago, the assembled forces of liberalism were convinced that the Senate was "broken," that the anachronistic filibuster impeded progress. The Senate itself, with its arcane rules and procedures, had become undemocratic and was in need of vital reform, according to all of the usual voices. John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress and a sort of archbishop of liberalism these days, drew on his deep command of political theory and social science to explain that the American political system "sucks," in significant part due to the unwieldiness of the Senate.
Well, who better represented those alleged structural problems than Byrd? Nearly every obituary celebrates his "mastery" of the rules. This is from the first paragraph of the Washington Post's obituary: Byrd "used his masterful knowledge of the institution to shape the federal budget, protect the procedural rules of the Senate and, above all else, tend to the interests of his state."
Yes, what about his tending to his state's interests? For several years there's been a lot of bipartisan indignation over the perfidy of pork and "earmarks."
Who, pray tell, better represented that practice than Byrd? The man emptied Washington of money and resources with an alacrity and determination not seen since the evacuation of Dunkirk. There are too many of these Byrd droppings in West Virginia to count, but we do know there are at least 30 buildings and other structures in that state named for him. So much for Democrats getting the message that Americans are sick of self-aggrandizing politicians.
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.