The desire to not speak ill of the newly deceased is an honorable one, but the positioning of Robert Byrd‘s Klan membership as some youthful mistake that he hadn’t fully considered and later abandoned is pretty grating. He wasn’t some tertiary member of his Klan chapter; he was its leader. He was an ardent segregationist who opposed the integration of the military and voted against the Civil Right Act. He changed his stances because they went out of fashion and were politically toxic. When Republicans complained about a double standard on how they were treated on race, they often pointed to the fact that the Democratic caucus had a former Klansman in its ranks, and that he somehow remained a respected Democrat in good standing. It’s a self-serving criticism, of course, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t true.
But there’s been a stark (and telling difference) between the eulogizing of Robert Byrd, the long-time senator from West Virginia, and that of Ted Kennedy, another Democratic stalwart of the Senate. Besides all the ink that was spilled discussing Camelot and the considerable goodwill he’d engendered among his colleagues during his long Senate career, Kennedy’s obituaries also talked about his legislative accomplishments, which were formidable. Byrd’s obituaries, on the other hand, discuss the fact that other lawmakers held him in high regard and how he used his pull on the appropriations committee to funnel tons of loot back to West Virginia. This is relatively thin gruel. There’s probably an argument to make that the dough he brought home has helped his beleaguered state in ways that are hard to quantify, but considering how long he served, it seems like there should be something more substantial to praise about him than the fact that he held sacred the Senate’s traditions.