Senator Robert Byrd – The Bigger Picture
We’ve all been there before. Waking up in the comforts of our own homes and going through the monotonous tasks that kick off our days. Brushing our teeth, showering and throwing on clothes before we’re on the way to work, school or whatever it is that we devote our time to. And then you get the news…someone whom has been a vital component our lives has passed on.
Today, we can feel the pain of nearly 2 million West Virginians as they mourn the passing of someone we see as the longest serving Member of Congress and a political giant. But to those he served, Senator Robert Byrd was much more than a political figure. He was the bread winner for an entire state wracked by the number 1 killer of people around the world – poverty.
To many in West Virginia Senator Byrd will be remembered as the man who put food on their tables and provided opportunities for the advancement out of or contribution to a largely inescapable region of our country. It is not uncommon to run into a West Virginian who was born in Robert Byrd Hospital, attended the Robert Byrd Elementary School, played Friday night football under the lights of Senator Byrd Stadium and drives to work each day on the Robert Byrd Freeway. And for those who have no connection to an institution named after this nation’s longest serving Senator, there is still no doubt in their minds whom they can at least partially thank for their opportunities.
Over the course of 58 years in Congress and a tenure as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Byrd was able to funnel Billions of dollars back home to his constituents. To his political enemies (and even his friends) he was known as a master of securing Washington “pork.” But to those back home it wasn’t so much pork as it was often times a job and a livelihood. Yet, whether you’re a constituent of the Senator or merely see Robert Byrd through the lens of a political observer, I think it would do us all a great deal of good to take a step back and learn from Senator Byrd’s life and contributions.
As I write this the Senate Judiciary Committee has commenced the great American ritual of skewering Supreme Court Nominees. Over the course of the next couple of days we’ll see Senators representing varying sects of America’s political culture ask questions both relevant and irrelevant if only to position themselves among some flank of America’s ideological spectrum. And by the time I leave the office I will no doubt see both Democrats and Republicans mischaracterize and demonize each other in an attempt to retain or regain control of Congress, further perpetuating the cycle of cynicism over our politics that is slowly and subversively killing the American dream we’ve come to know for ourselves and those who will follow in our footsteps.
It is with that thought that I ask each of us to consider the life of Robert Byrd. For he was not just a man who was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan and a Senator who joined Southern resistance to Civil Rights legislation, but also a man who was lionized after his opposition to the Iraq War and one who literally defied prayers for his death during the health care reform debate. And did I mention he endorsed President Obama after Hillary dominated Barack in the West Virginia primary in 2008 by like 30 points?
Robert Byrd epitomized what it should mean to be an American political figure. He made mistakes and readily admitted that he was often, as we all are, a victim of the ideology of our times. Yet he had the will to grow and develop his thoughts while not forgetting the people back home who elected him to a lifetime of achievement in the United States Congress.
Our elected officials and those who work with them need to remember that it’s ok to have differing views as long as the needs of the people are not being ignored for political expediency. That you can make decisions that might not win you points within a media and political culture that both encourages and rewards shortsightedness, but over the course of a career truly dedicated to the public’s service you can have an enormous and positive impact on the lives of people and it is that for which you’ll be revered or forgotten.