Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Robert Byrd 1917 - 2010

Monday's death of senator Robert Byrd sparked an odd mystery. The man was the longest serving senator in American history and third in line for the U.S. presidency. Dude served under twelve commanders-in-chief. So where was the coverage? Where was the NY Times banner headline? Why did his death notice compete with Sandra Bullock's divorce on CNN.com?

Byrd underwent one of the most interesting political conversions in modern American politics, easily besting the late-inning redemptions of Goldwater, The Grinch, George Wallace, or Darth Vader. He joined the KKK in 1942. For years, Byrd was a vigorous defender of white supremacy. That he was able to abandon, and then atone for, this persona was a testament to the tensile strength of American democracy. And that he was able to whittle this liability into a mere biographical footnote highlighted how absurdly far this country has come in just a hundred years. In 1925, 40,000 Klansmen joyfully marched on DC. Today's Tea Partiers have to distance themselves from even the occasional racist yahoo. When Dennis Miller joked about Byrd's Klan days at an '03 Bush fundraiser, the crowd booed; poking fun at a heartfelt conversion was too distasteful even for political comedy. Byrd's change of heart gave context to this young century's political landscape.

You know what was sweet about Robert Byrd? He made it easy to run for office. Up until last week, anyone in America could have run a political campaign with a clean conscience. Did questionable things? Freebased stuff? Frequented titty bars? Said awful things onstage in your punk band? Hey, at least you weren't in the Klan. Byrd was, and Byrd recovered. In the Obama age, it was the kind of effortless reconciliation other countries strive for and never achieve. This neat note is now gone. There will almost certainly never be another ex-Klansman in national politics.

Byrd's death also makes senator Daniel Inouye the president pro tempore of the United States. This means that the father of a Dischord Records artist (Kenny Inouye, Marginal Man) is now third in line to the presidency. So consider this an official heads up; don't come whimpering to me when the guy from Iron Cross is in charge of your oat rations.