When I was young, literally any problem or concern – be it local, regional, statewide, or national – that was voiced openly in the community or in private amongst friends got the same simple three word response: "Call Bob Byrd". My Mother, West Virginia resident from the time she was born to the point when we moved away in 1993, had heard the same response her entire life. A 4 year old doesn’t know what makes a good sandwich, let alone elected representative, but even then I knew Senator Robert Byrd’s name and face. And I knew if at any point I needed assistance from the government, he was the man to call.
I write this only because so much of what I’ve heard and read about Senator Byrd the last week has been about his status in Washington, his love of the Senate, his legislative achievements, and even his serious youthful mistakes. To nearly all West Virginians, the people who repeatedly sent Sen. Byrd to Washington, those things weren’t and aren’t so important. They do speak to the gifts this man was blessed with and West Virginians certainly saw the potential, the oratorical skills and ability to lead, that made his highly respected and accomplished career in Washington possible. Still, it wasn’t these skills or the obvious potential that got Sen. Byrd repeatedly sent back to Washington or endeared him to West Virginians. It was that they knew, even as he aged and put much of his responsibility concerning constituents on his staff, that when all else failed they could call Bob Byrd.
I’ve lived in Delaware since that move in 1993, although a great deal of my family remains in the state and I’m a West Virginian at heart. Delaware, when I arrived, had a well respected Senate delegation and roughly half the population of West Virginia. However, even as a kid I noticed there wasn’t a strong personal connection between the population and the state’s two Senators, each of whom had been around for many years. There was certainly no "Call Bill Roth" when the pothole down the street got worse. I’d later learn that Joe Biden was fairly accessible and made a point of traveling the rural southern parts of the state, something I respected a great deal. Still, there was no "Call Joe" common wisdom in these rural areas; after all, I was often told, most of the special interests and population are up north.
It would take me years to fully understand that this was typical politics, that the failure of Delaware’s Senators to engage every little corner of the state regularly was actually quite normal. Campaigning over the television, radio, and later the net could help these candidates reach areas like mine without ever actually speaking directly to the communities themselves. Like many Senators in many states, they took advantage of this technology, something I couldn’t hold against them. That said, the difference in political atmosphere between my old home and new home stood out to me. In one it didn’t matter where I was or who I was, all I had to do was call Bob Byrd and my issue was likely to be addressed. In the other, nearly half the population, it took me years to meet a Senator and years more to hear one speak. I write Sen. Carper these days and get a scripted response from a staffer. Yet, just months ago I was hearing stories of Bob Byrd communicating directly with West Virginians in need.
So for all of the great Washington accomplishments, what stands out to me about Senator Byrd has always been his accessibility and accountability to his constituents. Many Washington insiders will give you a laundry list of the Senatorial legend’s accomplishments. Washington insiders often only know Washington, though. If you talk to people in West Virginia, the voters who allowed the Senator to become the longest serving in history, the reason for his greatness is far simpler: When they needed something, Bob Byrd was there.
I also want to direct anyone interested in Senator Byrd to an interesting and well-written article by Jayne Armstrong about her experiences with Senator Byrd. I will quote the most interesting account below, but it is worth a quick read. There has been quite a bit of debate around here lately about Senator Byrd's mistakes as a young man, a debate well worth having. I think this story sheds some light on the late Senators approach to the issue:
The hesitation ended on a fateful Saturday night in 1998 when we both spoke at the Raleigh County Black Business Association dinner in Beckley. For several years, Senator Byrd had turned down the organization's request to be the keynote speaker, but on this occasion he invited himself.
Long after the media left, Senator Byrd took the podium to apologize to the African-American community for the "major mistake" he had made years ago. Although he never said the words Ku Klux Klan, everyone in the room knew what he meant.
It was the most heartfelt apology I have ever heard anyone give and I had no doubt that he meant every word he said. It was almost as if he thought his death was imminent and wanted to get it off of his chest.
He acknowledged that he paid the price for his mistakes as his dreams were cut short, especially his ambition to be president of the United States. He called it a lesson for young people, that a major mistake will always follow you, no matter what you do in life.
The dinner quickly turned into a spirited, lively event with ministers and business owners jumping to their feet crying out "halleluiah." There were a lot of tears and hugs followed by Senator Byrd's own a cappella version of "Amazing Grace." A classic Robert C. Byrd night if ever there was one.
The funny thing is, no one ever talked about what happened that night. The media never got wind of it, but that was the senator's intention. Instead, he apologized to the people who were affected the most, the people of Raleigh County, West Virginia. I gained a lot of respect for him that night.
It may have taken him until 1998 to make amends with some, but he was willing to try. I am comforted that he came to learn the truth about race and made an honest effort to right some wrongs. I understand why everyone here can't forgive him but perhaps his genuine growth as a man mean his maker will. After all, if West Virginia is almost heaven he shouldn't have far to go.