As the encomia mount like rotting, fly-buzzed piles of the pork-barrel spending he so systematically shoveled back to his West Virginia home, let's not forget the late Sen. Robert Byrd's most undeniable legacy: Undermining belief in politicians as little more than self-serving glad-handers on the hunt for more and more taxpayer money for their constituents.
Here's his colleague Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), last seen killing a DC school voucher program that helped poor minority kids, laying on the baloney like Oscar Mayer after chugging a case of Red Bull:
"No one in the history of the Senate could match Byrd's thunderous oratory; his sense of history; his determination to teach every President the limits of his power and his lifelong passion to fight for West Virginia, Durbin said.
"Daniel Webster, set another chair at Heaven's table, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia has arrived.”
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The cheap shot against Byrd is that he was back in the day an Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan and writing letters as late as 1946 that "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."
I consider it a cheap shot because he did apologize for and disown his participation in the group. Better late than never, I suppose, even if it does make you wonder about all those politicians of his generation, even ones from the Deep South, who never felt a need to recruit for the KKK and never prattled on about "white niggers" like some back-country Norman Mailer.
But it's Byrd's status as the Babe Ruth of pork-barrel spending and taxpayer-funded narcissism that is his real legacy and the one we should never forget or forgive. Here lies a man who pushed his home state to build a statue of him in defiance of a rule that such honorees be dead for 50 years.
Back in 2006, Citizens Against Government Waste called Byrd the "Emperor Palpatine of Pork" and gave him their lifetime achievement award, writing
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In his over forty-eight years (!) in the United States Senate, Senator Byrd has achieved a pork record that is second to none. From the Robert C. Byrd Expressway to the Robert C. Byrd Freeway; the Robert C. Byrd Institute to the Robert C. Byrd Federal Building (both of them), Senator Byrd has truly left his mark on West Virginia --- and the federal budget. (And let us not overlook the proposed Robert C. Byrd rooms in the U.S. Capitol.) It would be appropriate to erect some kind of monument to his century-spanning resume --- except that he already did so himself.
He was like Radar O'Reilly in the early episodes of the TV show M*A*S*H, slowly shipping home the entire federal government piece by piece to his Mountain Mama.
It always happens that press corps and political opponents go mushy at the moment of death - even the execrable Sen. Strom Thurmond received a ton of unearned praise as he was finally being lowered into the ground. But in weak-kneed moments, it's all the more important to remember negative legacies. Byrd was famous for carrying a Constitution with him at all times. In some cases, he even used it to argue against things like the Iraq War. But mostly it was cover for an expansionist vision of government and you wouldn't catch him invoking limitations to the commerce clause if he wanted the spending or power attached. Even his supposed dedication to limiting executive power seemed to be mostly an argument for increased Senatorial power.
Characters like Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.), another recently deceased pork-barrel prodigy, and Byrd might have been larger than life but they worked to corrode any integrity voters and critics of government might find in legislators. We're grown-ups here in America and we're supposed to be able to take care of ourselves with a minimum of paternalistic help. For the times and places and people who really do need outside help, it fouls the nest when it is administered by folks such as Byrd because it becomes impossible to know if this is a legitimate exercise of state power and assistance or just one more bank job pulled under the cover of often-impenetrable Latinate rhetoric.
In an age of untrammeled government spending and power grabs (an era that started long before the current administration) and with folks like Byrd, Ted Kennedy, and Ted Stevens either dead or otherwise out of office, it's worth remembering we need less characters in Congress and more character in legislators who go about faithfully executing the duties of a limited-government system.