The passing this week of Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia makes one miss the days when Southern politicians were complicated rather than merely crass. Yes, Byrd clung to office longer than he should have. Yes, he was a master of pork barrel spending. Yes, he lined up with the states’ rights and nullification Dixiecrats in the 1960s. But — like his fellow former Klansman Hugo Black of Alabama — he overcame his racist upbringing and became a supporter of civil rights, a defender of the promises of a living Constitution, and a champion of the poor and middle classes. Even the billions of dollars of federal spending he channeled into West Virginia seemed calculated to boost Appalachia and not himself.
In recent years, Byrd seemed especially prescient on the dangers of the imperial presidency, the willingness of Congress to give up its authority over budgets and foreign policy, and the risks to the nation of deregulation, militarism, and corporatism.
It is worth remembering, as NewSouth correspondent Wayne Sabel did this morning, Byrd’s post-mortem on George W. Bush’s ruinous rush to war in Iraq:
The run up to our invasion of Iraq featured the President and members of his cabinet invoking every frightening image they could conjure, from mushroom clouds, to buried caches of germ warfare, to drones poised to deliver germ laden death in our major cities. We were treated to a heavy dose of overstatement concerning Saddam Hussein’s direct threat to our freedoms. The tactic was guaranteed to provoke a sure reaction from a nation still suffering from a combination of post traumatic stress and justifiable anger after the attacks of 9-11. It was the exploitation of fear. It was a placebo for the anger.
What has become painfully clear in the aftermath of war is that Iraq was no immediate threat to the U.S. Ravaged by years of sanctions, Iraq did not even lift an airplane against us. Iraq’s threatening death-dealing fleet of unmanned drones about which we heard so much morphed into one prototype made of plywood and string. Their missiles proved to be outdated and of limited range. Their army was quickly overwhelmed by our technology and our well trained troops.
The American people unfortunately are used to political shading, spin, and the usual chicanery they hear from public officials. They patiently tolerate it up to a point. But there is a line. It may seem to be drawn in invisible ink for a time, but eventually it will appear in dark colors, tinged with anger. When it comes to shedding American blood — when it comes to wreaking havoc on civilians, on innocent men, women, and children, callous dissembling is not acceptable. Nothing is worth that kind of lie — not oil, not revenge, not reelection, not somebody’s grand pipedream of a democratic domino theory.
And mark my words, the calculated intimidation which we see so often of late by the ‘powers that be’ will only keep the loyal opposition quiet for just so long. Because eventually, like it always does, the truth will emerge. And when it does, this house of cards, built of deceit, will fall.
— Sen. Robert C. Byrd, 1917-2010, in speech on the Senate floor, May 21, 2003
One hopes those words will also be remembered and reflected on as Byrd’s colleagues in Congress memorialize him this week.