Living in Silicon Valley while penning this tribute to my late West Virginian Senator, I note that part of my appreciation for him parallels my appreciation for living here, in this land of start-ups where you can screw up and start again. This is the land of opportunity and of momentum, of forward-thinking and of constant change. In my view, the late Senator Byrd modeled all of those things that make Silicon Valley great. He had some reprehensible moments in his younger life, but he asked (and found) forgiveness for it; and he modeled a commitment to the greater good that many of today’s politician’s lack. Like me, a child of a coal miner, Senator Robert C. Byrd cared deeply about poverty in America, and his legacy of good works will be long-lasting. Here is my humble tribute:
Growing up in West Virginia, I could be assured of two things: church on Sunday and Robert Byrd in the Senate. First elected in 1959 when my mother was only 12, Senator Byrd was elected to his ninth term in the Senate three years ago despite his advanced age (he died at 92). This spoke volumes about West Virginia’s commitment to the man dubbed “The King of Pork,” a term that will offend all but West Virginians. Byrd had some despicable things in his past – I’ll write about those in a moment – but, above all, Byrd had a commitment to improving the lives of my fellow West Virginians. He called it what it was: poverty. And he did everything in his power to make life a little less poor for West Virginians, spearheading the pouring of Congressional appropriations into the state -- which, to this day, has the best roads in the nation. Why? Highway repair and improvement creates jobs, and Senator Byrd knew that; he brought billions of dollars to West Virginia though a myriad of federal projects. West Virginia scored the FBI fingerprinting lab among other top-dollar projects because of his hard-lobbying for our poor little state. Bluntly, West Virginia will be set back decades without him. It took that long, at least, for him to wield the power that he did to direct money to our state. And frankly, Jay Rockefeller (also D-WV), the state’s other long-term Senator, doesn’t hold the same sway despite his prominent family name. (Perhaps this is because he is not “from” West Virginia but, rather, carpet-bagged from New York.) For a state that has little to offer other than its coal and an equally-steady export of people – for there are no jobs – harder times are ahead.
Doing the right thing for others became Senator Byrd’s most pressing concern, perhaps to offset the dark side to his life in a state that’s about 95% white; that’s where the Senator’s “albatross” (as he described it) bears mention. He joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1942, and his date of exit remains unclear. While he claims he left after only a year, his writings for some years afterward reflect continued allegiance; and then, in 1964, he joined with other Southern Senators to filibuster the Civil Rights Act. He offended many when he spoke on race relations in 1991 and chose to use the term “white nigger.” Over and over, he apologized for his early life; he claims that he regretted his affiliation with the Klan, regretted his stance against Civil Rights, and regretted his choice of words. Put simply, he changed his mind. How often today do we hear a leader say, “I was wrong, and I’m sorry?” (Not often enough IMHO!) Most seemed to believe the Senator’s contrition, and, at the end of the day, flawed as he was, his actions spoke louder than his words – and he delivered for West Virginia and for the nation. It is noteworthy that, of his 17,000+ votes in the Senate, his self-proclaimed proudest moment came in his vote against the war in Iraq. Hailing from a state with among the highest number of veterans, that vote couldn’t have been easy to cast; his re-election despite that vote was especially poignant. He also spoke against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Despite Senator Byrd’s work in securing so much federal money for my beloved home state, West Virginia still ranks among the poorest, has among the worst education systems, and boasts residents in among the poorest health with among the highest rates of obesity and tobacco use in the country. West Virginia’s is a labor-driven, not a knowledge-driven, economy, with dwindling jobs and not a whole lot of hope for better beyond what Byrd brought its way. With his death, I am left with but one question: who will care for impoverished West Virginia – and care as well for our nation -- now?
Roxane Dover chronicles her family’s antics on Rox and Roll (http://www.roxandroll.com) and will soon launch Rox on a Soapbox (http://www.roxonasoapbox.com), a punditry blog that will cover political issues of pressing concern to families.