Grace and the Life of Robert Byrd
Robert Carlyle Byrd (20 November 1917-28 June 2010) died in the wee hours of Monday morning at the age of 92. The longest serving member of the U.S. Senate in history, he was first elected to the House of Representatives from West Virginia in 1952 and served six (6) years (3 terms) before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958. His time in Congress overlapped that of ELEVEN (11) U.S. Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama) and he served as both Minority and Majority leader of the Senate (twice each). He began as a conservative Dixiecrat (having belonged to the Ku Klux Klan as a young man in West Virginia), but he evolved–and repented of his racist past. (In Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, he describes first meeting Byrd in his office after being elected to the Senate and Byrd’s teary-eyed confession of his past.) Once considered one of the most conservative of Democrats in Congress, by the time of his death, he was one of the liberal champions of the people–having opposed the invasion of Iraq on the Senate floor, stopped Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security by never letting it out of committee, voted for universal healthcare, for a ban on mountaintop removal (despite King Coal’s dominance in West Virginia), and for a climate change bill that included a carbon tax. His death may endanger the Wall Street reform bill in the way that Senator Kennedy’s death endangered the passage of health care reform.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Marc Antony say that “the evil that men [sic] do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” But I hope Shakespeare’s Antony was wrong–at least, that this need not always be the pattern. We are all flawed persons who do both good and evil. I would hope that Robert Byrd’s evil actions (and he had them, not only as a young Klansman, but in attempting to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964) are buried with him and his many good things live after him. I know that the many bridges, roads, schools, and hospitals that he helped to build throughout West Virginia (one of the poorest states in the U.S.)
The life of Robert Byrd reminds me that repentance can be real. People can really change over time. He’s hardly the only one: I think of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, but in Byrd’s case it didn’t take an attempted assassination or being confined forever to a wheelchair to lead him to repentance. People are complex, none of us are plastic saints, but some of us manage to change and grow. In Christianity, we call this grace.