Robert Byrd served in the United States Senate for 51 years representing the people of West Virginia as a Democrat. 51 years is worth several lifetimes in politics and the country changed in a myriad of ways from 1959 to 2010, and so did Robert Byrd. Growth is important not just in politics but in life and often if one is a politician those can look like the same thing, but there is a difference between genuine introspection and political gamesmanship. Byrd falls into the former, and so far, former Vice President (and Senate contemporary) Joe Biden has fallen into the latter.
Before Byrd was elected to office he was still active in local politics, he recruited over 150 people to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and he was elected the top officer of his chapter by a unanimous vote. Byrd in his capacity as a Klan leader was a prolific writer and one of his letters addressed the possibility of an integrated army, “I should 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, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.” Eventually Byrd left the KKK but he did not leave behind the ideas of that organization, for decades Byrd clung to his beliefs that were without question rooted in white supremacy and he pursued policies that protected racist institutions.
Byrd joined Senate Dixiecrats in filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a filibuster that lasted over 80 days and the legislation was only able to pass after the Senate invoked cloture for only the second time since 1927. Byrd’s personal filibuster of 14 hours and 13 minutes remains today the 11th longest filibuster in the 213-year history of the practice. Byrd also voted against the Voting Rights Act and the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, going as far as to solicit the help of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to dig up dirt to kill his nomination. Byrd didn’t just have a bad record on race, he also supported the red-baiting Joseph McCarthy and the failure of conscience that was Vietnam. Byrd could’ve continued to align himself with bitter regressive men like Strom Thurmond and Herman Talmadge, there would’ve been no political consequences as Byrd was electorally secure in West Virginia and was quickly gaining seniority in the Senate. But he didn’t continue as he did, Byrd apologized and then he spent the rest of his life attempting to come to terms with his past.
In his autobiography Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields he said “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times … and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again.” Starting in the 1970s Byrd renounced his segregationist past and began to attempt to make amends with the communities he had harmed. Byrd was fiercely outspoken against President Bush’s determination to launch an illegal war in Iraq. After originally calling the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “self-seeking rabble rouser”, he advocated the creation of a federal holiday to celebrate his memory and acknowledging “I am the only one in the Senate who must vote for this bill.” Byrd eventually went on to earn the support of the NAACP and respect within West Virginia’s black community. The biggest symbol of Byrd’s evolution happened in May of 2008, after a string of losses and a controversy involving an explosive pastor there was doubt about whether DNC superdelegates would continue to support Sen. Barack Obama. Then Robert Byrd endorsed Obama, perhaps securing delegate support and ultimately the nomination of America’s first black President. Byrd later went on to cast the deciding vote in support of Obamacare while dying from a terminal illness.
Byrd did not have a perfect record nor was he progressive, not really by any metric. He supported anti-gay legislation which was common for the time though still abhorrent. Byrd was a proponent of tough on crime policies and his politics while more liberal in his old age were still reflective of conservative West Virginia. Byrd’s politics overall were not especially commendable, but they were evidence of a man who was affected positively by his experiences and became a more ethical leader.
Joe Biden served with Robert Byrd for 30 years and witnessed his evolution first hand, that is why it is so disappointing that he has not learned from his example. Biden’s record may not include segregation, but it does include some of the worst policy decisions in recent years. Biden wrote the mass-incarceration ‘94 crime bill that has imprisoned a generation of black and Latino men. Biden voted for the illegal war in Iraq that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s dead, gave rise to ISIS, cost trillions of dollars, and has ushered us into an era of forever war. Biden wrote the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act which lead to millions of Americans falling deeper into economic despair as they were unable to file “clean slate” bankruptcies during the Great Recession forcing people into what Bob Cesca called “neo-indentured-servitude to creditors”.
Joe Biden’s record is mixed but there are countless times, whether relating to Anita Hill or his affinity for the same segregationists that Byrd distanced himself from, when Biden was decidedly not on the side of progress. Biden has had bright spots like his support of marriage equality as Vice President while the official position of the administration was opposed, but those bright spots are far and few between. Now Biden is running for President of the United States (again) and his record is coming under fair scrutiny. Biden is leading the field and stands a good chance to be the nominee of the Democratic Party and perhaps beat Donald Trump in the upcoming Presidential election. He has had a little over a decade to evolve and learn and change his politics for the better, but he’s failed to rise to the occasion thus far.
It is not too late for Biden to become a better politician and a better person by looking inward and taking account of the consequences of the actions of his career and redefining his politics to serve as reparations for those he’s harmed. Humility is often missing from politics and hubris is often excessive, and Biden has shown too much of the latter and has only been forced into the former after embarrassing himself through unforced errors. Not only do the American people deserve a better Joe Biden, but Biden deserves a better version of himself. It’s difficult to change in politics and in life and more difficult still to sustain that change (see the many faces of Mitt Romney). Biden should ask himself why does he want to be in government. If the answer is to exploit proximity to power to achieve some personal fantasy of grandeur, then it’s not necessary to change. However, if the answer is something more noble, to be in the service of the public and use government as a tool to meaningfully improve the lives of others, then he must recognize that he has not always achieved that goal and spend this campaign and a potential presidency fighting for that end.