Washington's rare Byrd

Matthew Engel
Tuesday May 27, 2003
The Guardian

The more we learn, the more the Iraq war seems to be a war without heroes, even in the debased tabloid-newspaper usage of the word. The funny thing is that a hero really has emerged on the other side of the argument. And a very improbable one he is.

Last week, the Democratic Senator from West Virginia, Robert C Byrd, again got up and delivered a passionate denunciation of Bush's adventure: "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."

The speech was, I believe, heard by a similar-sized audience to the others: about two people in the chamber and three watching on C-Span. Yet these things have legs. Byrd's main anti-war oration in February was reprinted across the world, in these pages among others. The cadences are often beautiful. The logic has gone unrefuted and, since Bush has now had his way and unhorsed Saddam, is forever irrefutable. Who is this man? Why isn't he running for president instead of the mealy-mouthed Democratic front-runners, Kerry and Edwards?

Well, there are one or two conventional objections to this idea. Byrd is 85, and has Parkinson's. And his reputation, achieved over a mere 51 years in Washington - the last 45 in the Senate - has always been for four of the most objectionable senatorial vices: (a) windbaggery; (b) constitutional and procedural pedantry; (c) an ego the size of a much larger state than West Virginia and (d) absolute unprecedented brilliance at the Senate's most noxious vice of all, securing those federal hand-outs for constituents collectively known as "pork".

I was recently musing, possibly on a flight from Reagan National airport in Washington to Bush airport in Houston just how crass it is to name things after living politicians. In West Virginia, there are at least 32 federal projects named after Byrd, including four stretches of road, two interchanges, two courthouses, a bridge and a dam. In the state capitol rotunda, there is a double-life-sized statue of him. On his website, he is described as "the West Virginian of the 20th century". No wonder he was against overthrowing Saddam, you might think; they have much in common.

But the 20th century always seemed a bit modern for Byrd. He was, briefly, in the Ku Klux Klan and has never been any kind of leftie. But if you focus on the Klan episode, you miss the point of his political career. What he has is 19th-century earnestness: he was the son of a coal miner and earned his degree at night school when already a senator. And he has a Victorian reverence for the constitution, which he carries round with him, and for senatorial prerogative, which is one explanation for his fury about the war.

There is also a Victorian shamelessness about his self-promotion. He likes to say there are four things all West Virginians believe in: God, the Sears Roebuck catalogue, Carter's Little Liver Pills and Robert C Byrd. God has never seemed to treat West Virginia all that kindly, the Sears Roebuck catalogue is no more, and Carter's pills have apparently been overtaken by more modern laxatives. But Byrd is unassailable at least until God stops being fearful of the rivalry. (He still hasn't plucked up the courage to face up to 100-year-old Strom Thurmond.)

In the meantime, it doesn't matter what Byrd says about Iraq or if he gives up his Victorian morality (he hated Clinton, same party or not) and takes up with floozies. His 45 years of seniority means that if he wants something for West Virginia, he can get it. So if he runs again, aged 88, the voters know they would be insane to toss that away just because some young whippersnapper agreed with them about mere politics.

Some of us suddenly find we do agree with him. Last week, Byrd said: "The American people may have been lured into accepting the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing international law, under false premises." You would have thought a few more politicians under the age of 85 might acquire the courage to say that, but they haven't. Maybe he'll be the West Virginian of the 21st century too.