The Rude Pundit will leave it to West Virginians to work out now-dead Senator Robert Byrd's complicated legacy with their state, filled with the so-called "pork" that brought West Virginia into the 20th century in its roads and classrooms and industries, as well as with Byrd's support of coal companies over environmental concerns. He also won't go on about Byrd's KKK past or his late-career role as an eloquent last-man-standing against the Bush administration's mad march to war in Iraq.
As many of the encomiums to Byrd will tell you, the Senator believed in the primacy of the Congress in the governing of the country. He was, as many noted during the recent health care debate, the one who knew the rules and how to abide by them. He saw the constitutional role of the legislative branch as the representatives of the populace, and thus they had to be independent of the executive branch. They had to simply think for themselves. Part of Byrd's railing against George W. Bush was that he felt the Congress was abdicating its role as a check on presidential power. Indeed, for most of the Bush II presidency, Byrd watched aghast and expressed revulsion at the Republicans simply bending over for the White House so Karl Rove could have easy access to their asses.
One could make an argument (and the Rude Pundit has) that the first year of Barack Obama's presidency was an attempt to get Congress, and the Senate in particular, to return to its role as an independent branch of government. Neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush spent time in Congress. Hell, neither of them was elected to any legislative body, so of course they privileged the executive over all. But Obama did legislate, in Illinois and in the Senate. One could argue that the effort, a chance for Congress to redeem itself and operate outside overt White House influence, was doomed to failure from the start and that the theory fell to pieces during the health care debate, when Democrats panicked because Obama was so hands-off. In other words, like Byrd did, Obama wanted Congress to act like the goddamn Congress, like a majority of the members were elected to do a job. It must have sickened Byrd to no end to watch Republicans abuse the filibuster. It must have sickened him even more to know that nothing could be done unless Republicans suddenly became honorable partners or the rules were changed.
During the cretinous rush to impeach Bill Clinton, Robert Byrd believed that the President had indeed lied under oath. He thought any discussion of the facts was idiocy. But he had other concerns, as he said on the Senate floor on September 9, 1998:
"The president's situation and the Congress' and the media's and the public's all consuming obsession with it has contributed to a loss of focus on and attention to many aspects of our national life that have far-reaching consequences. And we shall see a continuation of that loss of focus when and if the time ever comes that we have to vote on an impeachment resolution. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of foreign policy.
"In the few snippets of newspaper and news shows, which attempt to turn our attention from our unfortunate domestic travails and focus instead on events overseas, you can see the troubling signs of a long and difficult winter ahead.
"In the Balkans, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army has reportedly rounded up ethnic Albanian men and boys of fighting age in the province of Kosovo, labeling them all terrorists. This action bears the bloody stains of earlier Serbian ethnic cleansing in neighboring Bosnia. That event really led to a massive intervention by NATO. What action, if any, should the United States take? I fear that our lack of attention may allow the situation to get even further out of hand.
"In Iraq, troubling questions have been raised about an unwillingness to deal with continued Iraqi intransigence over weapons inspections. Russia's economy, and indeed, her very government appear on the verge of dissolution. North Korea has launched a long-range missile right over our ally Japan. In China and elsewhere, many tens of thousands of people face the coming winter hungry and homeless as a result of floods and fires and droughts. And not least, acts of terrorism against U.S. embassies and interests continue to threaten.
"All of these unhappy circumstances will challenge the U.S. economy and U.S. leadership. It ill behooves us all to become so enmeshed in the current web of scandal that we ignore or obscure our opportunities to deal with these serious challenges before they escalate into full-blown crises. We cannot continue to swirl in this miasma of misery if we are to judiciously carry out our duties as the representatives of the people."
The Congress had a job to do. Republicans wanted to stop everything else for a meaningless act of hubris and power-grabbing. Robert Byrd, disgusted at the White House, but more disgusted by his colleagues, just wanted to do the work of the people. And, voting to acquit, he warned in his statement at Clinton's impeachment trial of the poison that afflicts our nation:
"[H]atred is an ugly thing. It can seize the psyche and twist sound reasoning. I have seen it unleashed in all its mindless fury too many times in my own life. In a charged political atmosphere, it can destroy all in its path with the blind fury of a whirlwind. I hear its ominous rumble and see its destructive funnel on the horizon in our land today. I fear for our nation if its turbulent winds are not calmed and its storm clouds somehow dispersed."
Byrd hoped the nation would come together to heal. He hoped that "we can, together, crush the seeds of ugliness and enmity which have taken root in the sacred soil of our republic, and, instead, sow new respect for honestly differing views, bipartisanship, and simple kindness towards each other." And in words that ring true today as they did at the disgraceful end of the previous century, Byrd said, "We have much important work to do. And, in truth, it is long past time for us to move on."