Eulogies, of course, aren’t the forum to tell the whole truth about the dearly departed. Only an insensitive dolt would tell mourners in church that, “Larry was a boring man who at times would tell long, dull stories that interested absolutely no one. In fact, if you could bottle Larry, you’d have a cure for insomnia. He also told dumb jokes that nobody laughed at. Truth be told, nobody really liked Larry all that much.” Instead, we say nice things when remembering someone who just died. And this is a good way to operate. The truth can be painful, and who needs more pain at a funeral. And more important, tap dancing around ugly facts increases the odds that someone is going to say something nice about you when your time is up.
Which is precisely what Bill Clinton may have had in mind when he eulogized Senator Robert Byrd, who died the other day at 92. Clinton had to acknowledge the obvious, that Byrd, in his youth, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But Clinton said it was a “fleeting association,” and that he spent the rest of his life making up for it.
Well, not really.
Let’s start at the beginning: Why was Robert Byrd in the Klan in the first place, no matter how young and foolish he was? Politics, that’s why, former President Clinton told us.
“He once had a fleeting association with the Ku Klux Klan, what does that mean? I’ll tell you what it means. He was a country boy from the hills and hollers of West Virginia, he was trying to get elected.” Clinton said. “And maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done, and he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There are certainly no perfect politicians.”
No, there are no perfect politicians; something Bill Clinton knows a little something about.
And what is so troubling about this statement of realpolitic is that it doesn’t take plain old decency into account. Let’s say a politician thinks he needs to bash Latinos or gays or blacks today to get elected. Would Bill Clinton (or anyone else) be so cavalier as to say, “Hey, cut him some slack, he was just trying to get elected.”
Byrd was supposed to be a leader, not a follower. He might have used his charisma to change a few minds. But he didn’t. If Byrd knew that racism, even way back in the 40s and 50s, was wrong, then his cynicism was despicable. He did what he had to do — no matter who got hurt — just to win. But joining the KKK isn’t the same as joining the Rotary Club, where a pol might pick up a few votes. So I suspect Byrd joined the Klan because he shared their warped view of things. I think Robert Byrd really was a racist just like the other bigots who wore white robes and pointy hats.
In 1944 he wrote a letter to Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo, in which Byrd said: “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side. … Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”
This was pretty nasty stuff even for 1944.
As for Byrd’s “fleeting” relationship with the Klan, he may have been in the KKK for just a year, but he was a Klan sympathizer for several more. As I wrote in 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (Byrd, by the way, was number 48): “As a younger man, not only was he a member in good standing of the Ku Klux Klan, but he was such a good member that he got promoted to ‘Kleagle.’ And in that capacity, Robert Byrd was in charge of recruiting other bigots into the organization.”
And Bill Clinton’s observation that Robert Byrd spent the rest of his life making up for his past may be the stuff of eulogies, but history tells a different story. In 1964, Byrd tried to kill the Civil Rights Act. He filibustered on the Senate floor for 14 hours. “Men are not created equal today,” he said, “and they were not created equal in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written. Men and races of men differ in appearance, ways, physical power, mental capacity, creativity and vision.”
A year later he opposed the Voting Rights Act and most of President Johnson’s anti-poverty programs. “We can take the people out of the slums,” he said, “but we cannot take the slums out of the people.” How nice!
Later in life, Byrd was indeed a vocal supporter of the law that made Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday – proving either that even racists can undergo a genuine change of heart, or perhaps that Robert Byrd, like George Wallace in Alabama, simply saw the writing on the wall — and understood that black people didn’t ride in the back of the bus anymore and could actually vote. Maybe it was nothing more than another political calculation; Byrd realizing that what worked in days gone by, wouldn’t work anymore.
But no, I do not think Bill Clinton should have used Robert Byrd’s funeral as an opportunity to go through a laundry list of the senator’s old sins. That would have been wrong. But I don’t think Clinton had to smack the truth around the way he did, either. Our moms used to tell us that if we couldn’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. Maybe Bill Clinton, ever the statesman, could have compromised, and just said less.