Burying Byrd

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On July 2, 2010, Sen. Robert Byrd was laid to rest in Charleston, West Virginia, where President Bill Clinton delivered a eulogy that, for the most part, hit all the right notes. A clinker was struck, however, when he spoke of the many other eulogies for Byrd that had been in newspapers, saying:

They mentioned that he once had a fleeting association with the Ku Klux Klan. And what does that mean? I’ll tell what you it means. He was a country boy from the hills and hollers of West Virginia. He was trying to get elected. And maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done, and he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There are certainly no perfect politicians.

There is an English proverb that advises us not to speak ill of the dead. President Clinton chose to ignore that advice, and now, in order to respond, so must I. Some things just need to be said.

The relevant facts of the senator’s association with the Klan and his subsequent atonement will first be summarized. Then the ethical conclusions of the president will be assessed, and, finally, an attempt will be made to decipher the subtext of the eulogy.

In his June 19, 2005, Washington Post piece, “A Senator’s Shame,” Eric Pianin laid out the facts of Robert Byrd’s time with the Klan, including the following:

(1) Byrd founded a chapter of the Klan in the early 1940s, recruiting 150 of his friends who unanimously elected him as Exalted Cyclops. They had to pay three dollars each for their hoods and sheets.

(2) It was after Byrd had joined the Klan that the regional Grand Dragon suggested that he enter politics.

(3) As late as 1946, Byrd wrote a letter to the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, saying that “the Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.”

So this was not a “fleeting association.” Further, he was not “trying to get elected” when he joined, except to the office of Exalted Cyclops. It was only after he joined the Klan that his political ambition extended as far as the West Virginia legislature. In fact, it is fairly clear that he later distanced himself from the Klan primarily in order to further his political career.

But how did he go about trying to “make it up” after 1946? Pianin tells us that:

(1) He voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after filibustering for 14 hours on the floor of the Senate.

(2) He voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

(3) He voted against the Supreme Court nomination of Thurgood Marshall in 1967.

(4) He voted against the nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1989.

While these votes do not prove that Byrd was an unreconstructed racist, they do cast doubt on Clinton’s hypothesis that he spent his post-Klan adulthood seeking atonement.

Now, what is a good person?

Is a good person someone who organizes a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, not because he is a white supremacist, but because he is “trying to get elected?” Is Clinton suggesting that Byrd was never anything as vile as a white supremacist but was, instead, merely a hypocritical opportunist?

Is a good person someone who leaves the Klan and, a generation later, votes against extending civil rights to African-Americans, votes against ensuring the voting rights of African-Americans, votes against the Supreme Court nomination of, first, a liberal, and then, more than 20 years later, a conservative African-American?

If this is the definition of a good person, what do we call someone who did not found a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, got elected anyway, voted for civil rights, voting rights, and the nomination of two African-Americans to the Supreme Court? In other words, what would we call the person who was, in these respects at least, the opposite of the former Exalted Cyclops? Evil?

I don’t claim to know what a good person is, but I’m pretty sure that Clinton’s definition is, at best, incomplete.

While delivering this odd part of the eulogy, Clinton displayed a strong emotion that seemed to be anger barely held in check. When he was in office, he would usually consciously emphasize a point with a bent index finger. Speech coaches will tell you that unrestrained gestures are not persuasive on television. During the Klan bit, however, Clinton’s left forefinger was fully extended as he shook it. He seemed to be scolding the mourners. At that moment, he looked and sounded like a Southern Baptist preacher, all fired up.

Was he angry at the editorial writers who had brought up the Klan connection, sullying the reputation of the Senate’s longest-serving member? That makes no sense. The president himself was bringing it up, and not in print, but aloud, on television, and at the funeral itself, ensuring that the early chapters of the senator’s life story would be once more in the news.

There is something surreal about Clinton’s remarks, and there is something bizarre about the underlying anger. It is as though there are things going unsaid. Let’s slowly read the last part of the passage again and see if, between the lines, there isn’t another message.

“Maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done, and he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There are certainly no perfect politicians.”

Ah.

This is not a eulogy for Sen. Robert Byrd. This is not even about Robert Byrd. This is a cry of anguish from an impeached president who brought disgrace upon his office and himself. This is a cry of anger from a proud man who cannot have the one thing that he really wants: his reputation restored. This is a man reflecting on his own mortality and realizing that the Comeback Kid will not make that last comeback.

If it means anything, I forgive you, Bill. But please, don’t go around using eulogies to vent your anger, whether it’s at yourself or others. Does it really need to be said? When you give a eulogy, it’s not supposed to be about you.

There is another English proverb that advises us not to hit a man when he is down. Okay, I promise I won’t do it again, but you have to do your part. Stay down, Bill.

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