Robert Byrd – November 20, 1917-June 28, 2010 – who served as United States Senator for West Virginia for 51 years, returned repeated electoral favors by looting some $3 billion of U.S. taxpayers’ hard-earned money in order to bring back pork to his constituents. In so doing, almost certainly, he retarded entrepreneurship and private wealth- creation in West Virginia as succeeding generations of citizens came to rely on Byrd hand-outs and Byrd federal buildings, rather than on capitalist endeavor for their well-being. In so doing, he ensured that his own name, and the name of his wife Erma, look down from building after building, and along road after road, throughout West Virginia, much like the names of Dear Leaders in autocratic countries.
Certainly from the age of 24 until the age of 50, Byrd was strongly opposed to the individual and civil rights of all blacks in the United States. He joined the Ku Klux Klanin 1942 and became the top officer of his unit, holding the titles of Kleagle (recruiter) and Exalted Cyclops. In 1944, Byrd wrote to the segregationist Mississippi Senator, Theodore Bilbo:
“I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side…Rather 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.”
In 1946, Byrd wrote to a grand Wizard stating:
“The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation.”
With those reprehensible views, the Democratic Party became Byrd’s natural home, as he turned his mind to a career in politics. Even the Democratic Party had to be careful about associating itself with Klan members, however, so Byrd allowed his membership in the organization to fade away once he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates, where he served from 1947 through 1950. He then served in the West Virginia Senate, 1951-1952 before securing election to the United States House of Representatives (1953 through 1958). From 1959 until his death, Byrd served in the United States Senate, rising from the ranks to the most senior positions in that chamber.
Having discarded his links with the Klan explicitly for the purpose of career advancement, Byrd by no means abandoned his hatred of the blacks, at least until 1968. He started out his political career as a typical conservative Southern Democrat, upholding Jim Crow laws wherever possible. His 1958 campaign for the House of Representatives specifically and successfully targeted the pro-civil rights record of the Republican incumbent.
In 1964, Byrd joined with other Southern and border state Democrats to filibuster the Civil Rights Bill of that year. Byrd personally filibustered the bill for 14 hours. He also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on explicitly racist grounds. Byrd voted against the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the United States Supreme Court in 1967, again on explicitly racist grounds.
By 1968, Byrd realized that he would have to temper his segregationist and racist views if he was to play a national role in the Democratic Party. Thereafter, Byrd the Repentant emerged into public view, albeit with occasional lapses. For example, he voted against Clarence Thomas being confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1991, on the ground that Thomas had used the phrase: ‘high-tech lynching of uppity-blacks’. He also voted against the confirmation of Condoleeza Rice for the position of Secretary of State in January 2005.
Out of the shadows of racism emerged a new Robert Byrd: Emperor of Pork and looter of private property rights. From the outset of his Washington career, Byrd set out to link the U.S. Treasury to the pockets of his constituents. With an uncharacteristic lack of modesty, he revelled in calling himself ‘the king of pork’. Ultimately he succeeded in bringing $3 billion in earmarked spending to West Virginia. His name is enscribed on at least 6 major transportation sites, on at least 7 major technology sites, on at least 6 major health care sites, on at least 10 major education sites, on at least 5 major rourist and community sites and on at least three court and law enforcement sites. All in West Virginia.
In my judgment, the special place reserved for such a looter of taxpayers’ precious dollars over a political career spanning some 60 years indeed does begin with H but surely does not end with N.