Saturday 22 July 2017

From the Ku Klux Klan to senator and Obama's man

Robert Byrd, who died on June 28 aged 92, was the longest-serving senator in American history. First elected in 1958, he was the Democratic representative for West Virginia for 51 years, casting an unprecedented 18,680 roll-call votes.

He never lost an election -- including one in his youth to be the leader of a 150-member klavern (chapter) of the Ku Klux Klan.

Robert Carlyle Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr on November 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. His mother died during the influenza pandemic of the following year and Cornelius was adopted by his aunt and uncle, who renamed him and moved to Stotesbury in rural West Virginia.

Robert discovered his real name at the age of 16. His actual birth date -- he had always believed it to be January 15, 1918 -- remained a mystery to him until his elder brother revealed it in 1971, when Byrd was 54.

Although Robert thrived at school, the family was unable to afford college. He worked as a meat-cutter during the Great Depression and as a welder during World War II. He also worked as a petrol-pump attendant and taught himself to be a butcher.

In the early 1940s, Byrd belonged briefly to the Ku Klux Klan, flattered by the regional grand dragon's encouragement to use his talents in politics.

The affiliation was short-lived and Byrd apologised repeatedly for his membership, calling it a "sad mistake" driven by ambition and anti-Communist sentiment, rather than racism.

Byrd found a more salubrious entry into politics via his work as a lay Baptist preacher. His fundamentalist sermons became so popular that the local radio station began to broadcast them.

When he ran for West Virginia state legislator in 1946, he called on every voter in the district, often bringing out his violin to entertain the crowds.

Byrd went to Washington in 1953, serving six years in the House of Representatives before winning his Senate seat in 1958. He was an avid autodidact, once reading an entire dictionary from cover to cover, and was fond of quoting Cicero, Shakespeare and the Bible on the Senate floor.

In 1963, he became the first senator to earn a law degree while in office. It was conferred on him by President John F Kennedy.

Although reluctant to join the Washington party circuit, Byrd grew to love the Senate, displaying a passion for preserving the institution and its prerogatives. "Nobody has ever used the rules of the Senate more than I have," he once said.

In 1960, he set a record for the longest filibuster [a tactic to delay the passage of legislation] with a speech of 21 hours and eight minutes, including a lengthy section about raisins.

He often spoke out against abuses of the constitution, a copy of which he carried in a breast-pocket. Byrd opposed President Richard Nixon's resignation during the Watergate affair in 1974 on the grounds that it would "change our system from one of fixed tenure to one in which a president would remain in office only by popular approval".

He again took up this argument in 1999 during efforts to oust President Bill Clinton. Byrd brokered an agreement that led to Clinton's censure, rather than his removal from office.

Byrd later became a fierce critic of the 2002 congressional resolution which allowed President George W Bush to declare war on Iraq, describing it as "an evisceration of the congressional prerogative to declare war".

When asked how many presidents he had served under, Byrd liked to reply: "None. I have served with presidents, not under them."

Byrd's other great love was, of course, West Virginia, which he was able to shower with affection from the Committee on Appropriations, the largest in the Senate, of which he was appointed chairman in 1989. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, he directed $3.3bn of "Byrd Droppings" to West Virginia between 1991 and 2008. Byrd made no apology for his largesse. "I came from lowly beginnings," he wrote, "I had to have the confidence of the people. I've tried to repay them."

He won all 55 of West Virginia's counties in four of his nine Senate elections. In 2006, exit polls revealed that he continued to enjoy support across all demographics.

During half-a-century in Washington, Byrd's politics shifted gradually to the left. He described his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as his biggest regret.

In 1965, Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal lobbying group, found that his views and theirs were aligned only 16pc of the time. In 2005, that figure had risen to 95pc.

In 2008, a week after Barack Obama lost the West Virginia Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton, Byrd threw his support behind the future president. He said his youthful views had changed dramatically in 1982 when his grandson was killed in a road accident.

"I came to realise that black people love their children as much as I do mine," he said.

Robert C Byrd had married, in 1937, his high-school sweetheart, Erma Ora James. She died in 2006. He is survived by their two daughters.

Irish Independent

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