Yesterday United States President Obama, Vice President Biden, former President Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traveled to West Virginia to pay their respects to Robert C. Byrd, the nation’s longest serving senator, who died Monday, June 28, at the age of 92.
They sat in the hot sun on a cloudless day among a host of dignitaries, Byrd’s family and associates, and ordinary folks from all around the State of West Virginia—who this time, had the better seats in the shade of old trees on the state capitol grounds in Charleston. One man, a burley, crew-cut guy who looked like he would feel at home at the helm of a backhoe, openly wept at the end of the ceremony as Byrd’s casket was carried up the steps to the Rotunda by the West Virginia National Guard Honor Cordon. The senator was leaving West Virginia for the last time.
Countless words have been written about Byrd, who more often than not, confounded the proud and self-important. Business Week writer Albert R. Hunt said it was easy to underestimate Byrd, describing him as “socially awkward, pompous, the king of pork, a fiddler with no social life outside the Senate.”
Hunt goes on to say, “In a business that places a premium on collegiality and conviviality, Byrd had no talent for either,” but concedes that “what he lacked in sophistication and polish, he made up in shrewdness and persistence.”
Mr. Hunt, like most writers who examined Senator Byrd over his long career in Washington, noting what they perceived as eccentricities they would magnify and deride, apparently has no ear for old-time music. He never accompanied Byrd to the small towns of West Virginia where the senator was perfectly at ease among his people–who are always described as poor on the value scale conventional Americans use to judge everyone. He obviously never saw Byrd in the company of fellow musicians, especially that rare breed who knows the old tunes that have been passed down through generations. When Byrd was with them, his spirit soared. He whooped and laughed and shouted, urging the fiddlers and clawhammer banjoists to “Play it!” “When he was with us, he was one of us,” says Doyle Lawson, the acclaimed traditional musician who played guitar on Byrd’s 1978 LP, “Mountain Fiddler.”
Humility is a difficult virtue that gets a lot of lip service but is not roundly practiced because it requires perspective, understanding, and the courage to be a servant. It must be so rare in the corridors of Washington D.C. that it’s hardly recognizable. Superficial polish and sophistication, real and feigned, are as abundant as hot air, bluster and treachery.
Robert Byrd, known as Bob or Bobby in the coalfields of Raleigh County, West Virginia, where he grew up, went to Washington poor and, by Congressional standards, stayed that way. He lived on his salary, took a baloney sandwich made by his wife for lunch, and did the job West Virginians sent him to Washington to do, far exceeding our expectations and everyone else’s. He remained “poor in spirit,” a condition as inscrutable to most people as his character, yet when once asked how many presidents he had served under, he answered, “None.” The answer wasn’t inspired by pride; it came from his understanding of Constitutional separation of powers.
If only he had lived another eight years, or 12 or 20, in good health and sound mind, he might have ushered his state into a respectable position in the global economy. In a recent statement, to the consternation of the coal industry and lesser politicians, he urged “… For the sake of West Virginia’s best interests, and the vital longer-term interests of our nation and our world, the Senate must now move promptly to take responsible, decisive, and effective action on a moderate but major new energy policy.”
Starting out with no status and no privileges, he chose to dedicate his native gifts to the advancement of his state. He made some big mistakes but was also big enough to admit them, correct them and move forward. He chose to become educated, and continued to learn and change well beyond the age when most people have set their brains on automatic pilot.
Byrd set the bar high in whatever he did. Who can follow his act in Congress? Who will go to Washington with a deep appreciation of the lessons of history, and be able to resist the seductions of power and opportunities for personal gain? Who won’t be dazzled by sophistication and polish, but will work shrewdly and persistently to shape a future for West Virginia that looks radically different from its past?
Now that we’ve seen the results of integrity, persistence and courage, let’s hope we won’t settle for anything less.