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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.  

Originally posted to UntyingTheNot on Fri Jul 02, 2010 at 07:41 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Beautiful post. (7+ / 0-)

    It does seem like everyone in WV is political.

    •  Thanks Wally (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JekyllnHyde, BlueJessamine

      It is certainly a place where the mantra all politics are local often still holds true, even for legendary Senators.

      •  When my Dad lost his seat (0+ / 0-)

        of quite a few years he freely admitted in the post mortem that it was likely his fault. ( he rose to be deputy mayor as well as head of the Business Development Commitee of a major city - in other words a medium size fish in a very big pond ) He had taken on the big issues, sure, but had gradually neglected the little ones. Which generally aren't all that little to those concerned. Seems Sen Byrd never forgot that lesson. Which may well be why he had a longer career than my dad!

        it tastes like burning...

        by eastvan on Fri Jul 02, 2010 at 10:17:42 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Wow (4+ / 0-)

    thank you.

    Help me, Professor Guyfucker! - dkos hatemail

    by indiemcemopants on Fri Jul 02, 2010 at 08:21:02 PM PDT

  •  I'm a WV expat... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    eastvan

    Along the way, I had the pleasure of meeting the man several times. I don't want to overstate this, by meet I mean as a journalist and later as a peon staffer on Capitol Hill. Never one-on-one, but I met a million people along the way, some pretty important. But unlike those bigshots, this guy had a charisma that led me to remember every encounter.

    If you'll indulge me...

    First time, it was a presser at an airport. The choppers were returning from a tour of flood ravaged WV. It was 1985. Byrd got out of the bird and he had on one of those big helmets. To be honest, I thought he looked ridiculous. It was all he could do to keep his head erect. He took it off and came to the gaggle. Described what he had seen, I remember he had the look of a man of deep faith who deep down was saying "how could You?"...

    Second time, Byrd was addressing the WV State Senate in 1986. Thought I'd go take it in, observe the guy under better circumstance. He blew me away. Part historian, part motivator, part elder statesman, fellow West Virginian. He brilliantly  tied the issues of the day to history and related the courage and gile that had gotten ancestors through it.

    But what got me most was this. At the end of various paragraphs he famously paused and he'd scan the room and his eyes would fall on a senator and he'd simply say thier first name. John, Cindy, Phil...whatever. Thirty-two times, once for each member, he did his. It was so powerful, so commanding, it made me tingle.

    Third time. It's 1989 and I'm at a reception on Capitol Hill stuffing my face with free h'orderves. I'm with several other scavengers there for little other reason.

    I'm by now 31, but young by the room's standards. The Senator is working the room and sees us...obviously the least important people in the room. So he strides right over. We exchange introductions (as if he need to). Somehow, I don't remember, the subject of Secretaries of State comes up.

    For the next 20-30 minutes Byrd took the time to lecture this little group of young staffers on the subject. With God as my witness, he named ever one in order and provided a little bio and anecdotal with each. Frankly more than I wanted to know but it was okay, I knew I was getting a memory for life.

    Sorry to drone on, but these stories have been on a loop in my brain for the past few days.

    •  Don't Apologize (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The Eyewitness Muse

      Now is as good a time as there will be for recounting those old stories.  Thanks for sharing.  

      Your experiences and reaction sound so much like many stories I've heard over the years.  Many people who didn't even agree with most of his policy positions would come away impressed.  On the campaign trail and responding to constituents, his humility and charisma is famous.  In the Senate Chamber, well, even the opposition respected his skill as an orator.  I can't defend his early mistakes and don't like many of his votes but he was a gifted politician who cared deeply about serving his constituents.  

      His willingness to continuously learn, everything from memorizing the Secs of States to the law degree he earned while in the Senate, has always been impressive to me.

    •  Great (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The Eyewitness Muse

      story.

      it tastes like burning...

      by eastvan on Fri Jul 02, 2010 at 10:19:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  At this time in your state,I feel for your loss (0+ / 0-)

    There some things that I have been thinking about. Who else could African-Americans go to when there's was only one Black Senator? What's the population of minorities there? Do you remember during the primaries how people in Kentucky and West Virginia felt toward the then Sen. Obama? Black people died and lived in fear because of the words that Sen.Byrd used. Let me let you in on a secret. When Ronald Reagan pass when African Americans seen a camera, they kept on walking. What were we suppose to say about the man that cause a lot of African Americans pain? We respected the office, not the man. America needs one day to have a real discussion on race. It looks like we will have to wait a litle longer.

    Think...It ain't illegal yet ! George Clinton

    by kid funkadelic on Fri Jul 02, 2010 at 09:18:29 PM PDT

  •  great stuff - I love hearing this stories (0+ / 0-)

    of the inimitable Senator Byrd in action.

  •  I'm sorry I didn't see this in time (0+ / 0-)

    to Rec and tip, for it certainly deserves both.

    I'm in Ohio, but the southern part and only forty miles from WV. Most of the TV stations I get come out of Wheeling, so I guess I can be considered an honorary Mountaineer. I've been hearing about Bob Byrd most of my life too, and I'm 59. Usually what I heard was about his being the King of Pork because he had a way of bringing home jobs, funding, whatever his constituents needed in their hard-scrabble state.

    But it wasn't until I moved down here to southern Ohio that I came to understand more about the man and the reverence in which he was held.

    Perhaps true understanding, and my own respect for him came on the day of February 12, 2003, when he stood before his beloved Senate and made an observation. "Yet, this Chamber is, for the most part, silent -- ominously, dreadfully silent."

    At the time, he was The Only politician anywhere with the cajones to suggest that maybe we were jumping the gun with regards to Iraq. Maybe a little more discussion was in order before we launched such a rash undertaking. He went on to, right out loud, provide the very first less than sterling critique of the Bush II administration since 9-11.

    And he earned my undying respect. I finally, truly understood why he was the longest serving US Senator, and why his people loved him so. To this day, I get a chill and tears well up in me when I read the words he said that day.

    May I now, regretably late though it may be, say Thank You, Senator Byrd, for being the lone voice of reason in a decidedly unreasoned time.

    Meddle not in the affairs of dragons... for thou art crunchy and good with ketchup.

    by Pariah Dog on Sun Jul 04, 2010 at 05:02:47 AM PDT

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