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One reason so many senators crave the presidency

By Michael M. Bates
Web posted February 19, 2007

Serving as a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan may not strike you as a good career move.  Yet it worked out fine for Senator Robert Byrd.

In the early 1940s, the West Virginia Democrat did so well bringing in KKK members at $10 each ($3 extra for the robe and hood) that he quickly moved into management of the virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish organization.  He was chosen to be the Exalted Cyclops, the chapter leader.  A Grand Dragon suggested Byrd try politics.  He did, and served for years in the state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1958, he was elected to the Senate and has been there ever since.  Fellow Democrats revere him.  So popular is he that in 1971 he defeated the sainted Teddy Kennedy for a Democratic leadership post. 

Not bad for a former Kleagle who after World War II voiced his disgust with military racial integration.  Rather than fighting with blacks, he'd prefer to "die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels."

Using the n-word on national TV, as he did twice in 2001, hasn't hurt Byrd's standing.  In 2005, the new senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, sent out a letter praising Byrd and asking for donations to help his re-election.  Last year, Obama journeyed to West Virginia to raise $2,500 from each attendee at a Byrd fundraiser.

Hailing him for his anti-Iraq war stance, Time Magazine deemed him an "overnight Internet sensation" in a piece titled "Lionized in Winter."  The truth, that Byrd is little more than a pompous windbag, was evident on C-SPAN recently.

The West Virginian wanted to speechify and wasn't going to be dissuaded because of more pressing matters.  Several minutes were spent on an extended exchange by Senators Byrd, Warner, Lott, Durbin, Pryor and Schumer on who was going to speak, for how long, and in what order.   A small part of the discussion, as it appeared in the Congressional Record:

Mr. BYRD. Reserving the right to object, is there a previous order to the effect that I have an hour?

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Senator is correct.

Mr. BYRD. All right.  The previous order is that I have an hour.  When should I have the hour under the previous order?

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore.  That is what is trying to be worked out right now.  Right now, the Chair asks the Senator from West Virginia if the Senator intends to use the full hour and if the Senator would like it all in one block or if the Senator would prefer to break it up?

Mr. BYRD.  I don't know yet, but I want the hour.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore.  In one block?

Mr. BYRD.  I want the hour.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore.  The full hour.

Mr. BYRD.  An hour is a full hour.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore.  Uninterrupted?

Mr. BYRD. As of now, I want the hour.

Senator Byrd got his time of course.  He spoke about mine safety.  A portion of his speech, again from the Congressional Record:

"I grew up in the coalfields of southern West Virginia.  My dad - not my father, my dad - Titus Dalton Byrd, was a coal miner.  He belonged to the United Mine Workers, then district 29, now district 17, local union 5771.  My coal miner dad worked in the coal mines with my father-in-law, my wife's father, Fred James.  My wife's brother-in-law was killed by a slate fall in a coal mine.  My wife's brother-in-law died of pneumoconiosis, black lung.

"I - yes, I - married a coal miner's daughter.  You have heard the song ‘I'm a Coal Miner's Daughter.'  By whom?  By Loretta Lynn.

"I married a coal miner's daughter a long time ago.  We were married when we were 19.  She was 19; I was 19.  That marriage lasted almost 69 years, until her death.  And today she is in heaven.  She is in heaven.  Yes, she is in heaven today.  I believe that.

"Together, my wife Erma and I - mostly Erma - ran a grocery store, yes, in Sophia, WV.  Our customers were coal miners for the most part.  Our neighbors were coal miners.  Our friends were coal miners and others, but coal miners, surely.

"Today my constituents in West Virginia, the core - certainly, the core in my viewpoint, but my constituents - includes coal miners.  When I speak about coal miners and their safety underground, I am speaking about coal miners, my people, my family.  I am speaking from the bottom of my soul when I speak about coal miners.  It is a different breed of people, coal miners.  Yes, they would leave the open air and sunshine and go back into the bowels of the Earth to search for their brothers, their brother coal miners - Black or White, it doesn't make any difference.  They are all black when they come out of that mine... "

George Washington told Thomas Jefferson that the Senate would serve as a "cooling saucer" where hotly contentious matters could be discussed calmly and coolly.  Thoughtful deliberation has been replaced with the hot air of supposed leaders like Robert Byrd who waste everyone's time with folksy anecdotes and enthralling revelations such as who sang "I'm a Coal Miner's Daughter."

Given that environment, it's understandable that Senators Biden, Brownback, Clinton, Dodd and McCain are seeking the friendly confines of the White House.  I'm surprised 99 senators aren't running for president.  It's one way of graciously escaping the charms of the Exalted Cyclops.

Mr. Obama calls Byrd a "dear friend" and credits him with having "one of the most astute minds" in the Senate.  Sadly, that may be true. ESR

This Michael Bates column appeared in the February 15, 2007 Reporter Newspapers.      


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