Monday, June 28, 2010

June 28: The Evolution of a Gentleman

By Sylvia Gurinsky

It is possible to change for the better. Sen. Robert Byrd, who died overnight at 92, did so many times.

First, he changed the circumstances of his background. He came from poor West Virginia and became a highly educated man, a scholar of both the Constitution and the history of the United States Senate. More than anyone else in the recent history of the United States Congress, he linked the American tradition of democracy with that of Ancient Greece.

He had the courage to go against presidents, whether it was Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, Bill Clinton on the line-item veto or George W. Bush on Iraq.

Perhaps his biggest change came on the subject of civil rights. During the 1940s, Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1960s, as a senator, he voted no on the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American on the court. His evolution started during the 1970s; no less a figure than President Barack Obama now calls Byrd a mentor.

Above all, Byrd intensely disliked the partisan bickering that has become the norm in American politics. He is being remembered in many ways. The one that might have given him most pride is "gentleman" - one who had the guts to evolve.

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