Thursday, July 1, 2010

Robert Byrd, 1917-2010

News came over the internet the other day that Senator Robert Byrd had died at the age of 92, having served a record 50 years in the US Senate. I've long had a peculiar personal feeling toward Robert Byrd, and in consideration of his advanced age I've often imagined eulogizing him after his passing. I even, for some time, made vague plans for a journalistic pilgramage to Byrd's hometown of Sophia, West Virginia, where I would drum up biographical sketches and fond remembrances. I regret not being able to make the trip, but consider a eulogy, even in prose as stumbling as mine, to be both a personal and civic duty, especially as I've found news coverage of Byrd's passing to be surprisingly slim thus far, his complicated life and legacy rather glossed-over.

Byrd was my favorite politician. To talk about a favorite politician feels a bit like touting the pleasure of glass-chewing, but in my limited exposure to the man I found him to be a world-class orator, and could discern, beating within him, that which has become a true rarity in the political sphere--a warm, human heart. I must clarify that I'm fairly strictly a late-period Byrd fan. Much has been made of Byrd's misguided early years in West Virginia. He joined the KKK in 1942, at the should-have-known-better age of 24, and was an active member for several years before his election to Congress and subsequent disavowal. As a young senator, a Southern Democrat, he filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and supported the war in Vietnam. Even as late as the 90s he held backwards positions, such as opposing gay marriage. But gradually, over the course of his career, Byrd took a steady tack to the Left--not guided, seemingly, by the whims of his West Virginian constituents but out of a deep and evolving human understanding. He'd come to openly regret his past missteps, and when the Iraq War began to rear its hyrda-head Byrd was on the frontlines of the opposition, arguing fiercely and eloquently against this illegal and ill-advised campaign.

None of which says terribly much about the man himself, or why I am so powerfully drawn to him. My first encounter with Byrd was during the last months of 2002, when the war-drums were beating at their loudest. I happened to be sitting around the house, listening to NPR, and when Byrd came on, delivering his last-ditch speech on the Senate floor--it was the eve of the Iraq War resolution, which proposed to give President Bush the unilateral authority to declare pre-emptive war--I was struck by both his passionate eloquence and his charmingly-antiquated down-home-isms. "The president," he sneered at one point. "Who is he? He puts his britches on just the same way I do."

I started taping the speech, about halfway through. In the following weeks, I found myself listening to the tape over and over again. It became a bit of an obsession. It wasn't that it was a particularly historic speech--when I went hunting for it, these eight years later, I could only find it after some deep digging, buried in the C-Span video archives. Just the tone of Byrd's voice, his particular cadence, his scathing sarcasm, his deep traditionalism, enchanted me. I'd memorize choice bits, though none of the friends with whom I shared the tape could quite see what I was so worked up about. There would be plenty of detritus to skim through in the wake of Byrd's death, many hours of speeches available online, the fiery oratory rarely flagging--his 2007 speech against dogfighting is an especially poignant, bravura performance--but I found myself drawn, these last few days, to that obscure speech of October 10, 2002 which I'd so long ago loved. What a pleasure it was to find it again!

By the 10th of October, 2002 it was already clear which way the Senate would vote on the Iraq War resolution; Byrd's resolution, which reaffirmed the sole power of Congress to declare war, was far from having the support needed to pass. These were still the flag-waving days of the early War on Terror, when even hardline democrats were thirsty for Arab blood, by any means necessary. Byrd delivered his final harangues in a seemingly empty Senate chamber--it was so quiet on the floor, he commented bitterly, that you could hear a pin drop. For a full hour Byrd ad-libbed and proselytized, frequently waving around his pocket-edition Constitution. "They say it's too old!," he railed. "This Constitution that I hold in my hand is an anachronism! This modern president doesn't have time for old-fashioned political ideas that would complicate his job of going after the bad guy."

Did I mention that Byrd was a country fiddler, featured on the Grand Ole Opry? He was no Charlie Daniels, but certainly outclassed other performing politicians--Clinton blowing blues-lite sax riffs on Arsenio Hall, Richard Nixon's maudlin piano-playing on the Tonight Show. Byrd certainly had the cadences of a country fiddler, even while arguing the finer points of Constitutional law. At one point in the speech, he challenges Bush's lawyers to back up the constitutionality of their resolution--"Show it to me, laawwyers!," he cries, stretching the word to the limits of backwoods scorn; "Laawwyers of the White House"--the contempt in his voice unmitigated. "What in the world are they teaching in law school these days?," he fumes. "What are they teaching? I never heard such as that when I was in law school. 'Course, I had to go at night--I had to go ten years to get my law degree."

I'll not give an entire play-by-play. You can watch the speech itself, if you're interested. As a casual fan, I may not be qualified to weigh Byrd's life and career in toto--there are many ups and downs, to be sure--but I certainly can appreciate righteous rhetorical thunder when I hear it. At 92, Robert Byrd was certainly the last of his era, a breed of speechmaker the likes of which we'll likely not see again. Here he is--and I tip my cap to him--on the Opry, many years ago:

No comments :

Post a Comment