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.

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3 Responses

  1. I never knew about Senator Byrd, although it seems that I should have. What an awesome person.

    On a random note ~ How do we get the word out about people whose lives were given to bettering others lives? How do we bridge the gap between pop culture and politics (if you’re not Bono)?

  2. Trevor Summerfield says:

    That’s a million dollar question and one I think that would make a very interesting thesis paper…

    I think our current culture (and pop culture is contained therein) has created an environment in which the only pop culture references we can think of when we hear “politics” are negative. The Client # 9’s, the Blagos, the endless line of clowns plugging their secretaries etc. etc.

    We have to be, arguably of course, the most ADD country on the planet so such stories appeal to everyone’s lowest common denominator. They’re easy to think about, entertaining and feed our insatiable appetite to skewer those who seemingly fail.

    Politics, the “good kind” anyway, is admittedly boring. But there is nothing more serious and nothing more powerful than what our politics can drive. For starters, I would love to see the media acknowledge and focus any considerable amount of time on the positive impact of politics. On HCR for example very little time was spent on what GOOD was in HCR and much more time was spent on personal mischaracterizations and tea baggers etc.

    Generations of Americans have now grown up with a negative, cynical, disdainful appetite for politics because all they hear about are how politicians are hypocrites and screw people over (which I’m not arguing isn’t the case, btw). But with more attention paid on how politics can be positive (and it is we just never hear enough about the successes), a new generation of leaders can emerge which ultimately will lay the foundation for a long-term cultural shift.


    Let’s talk about this when I’m back in NY because there’s lots more to be said on the question you posed.

  3. Haha, sounds good. I look forward to chatting and expounding then!

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