The interview with the Senate leader had droned on for more than an hour and just about every topic had been asked and answered, cordially and completely. Except one, which seemed so obvious it surely had to be expected. So near the end, it, too, was asked.
What happened next remains as vivid in the reporter’s mind today as it was the day he wrote it in The Washington Post 24 years ago: “Suddenly (the Senate leader’s) face freezes. The muscles on either side of his jaw harden to what must be the consistency of golf balls. His eyes are lasers burning deeply into the questioner. There is silence.”
You’d think the question had been about a terrible transgression. Maybe an old scandal. Or sex. Or his days as a Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan.
Well, it took three tries, but you finally got it. “I really do not want to answer that question,” said the Senate minority leader in 1981, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, after more than one minute of silence. “It is something I have addressed time and again.”
According to the old Washington Post clipping, the Senate’s top Democrat said he was tired of having to explain his membership in the KKK – dismissing it as just a mistake of his youth. But, as we will discuss later, Byrd’s years of involvement with the Ku Klux Klan were actually far more than that – for Byrd used his Klan role as his entry into politics.
What the article does not note (because I chose not to write about it as a news reporter in May 1981) was the rest of Byrd’s response to the Klan question. He launched into a tirade of accusation, claiming the reporter had tried to trick and trap him by only pretending for an hour to want to interview him about his Senate leadership, when all he wanted was to write about those KKK days.
Actually, the article focused on Senate Democrats’ unhappiness with Byrd’s shortcomings as a spokesman in the TV age. He’d been fine as a behind-the-scenes conductor who made the Senate run on time. But in Ronald Reagan’s first landslide victory, the Democrats just lost control of the presidency and the Senate, much as Byrd just lost control of his composure. Byrd’s KKK role was not mentioned until the 61st paragraph in that 1981 piece. Byrd had organized his local KKK chapter in the early 1940s. While Byrd has maintained that his Klan involvement was only for a year or so, in 1946 (when he’d begun his political career) former Kleagle Byrd wrote the Imperial Wizard of the Klan to say: “The Klan is needed today, as never before.”
After decades of trying to dodge, deflect and denigrate questions about his KKK past, Byrd has now had to bring it up himself. Because he has written an autobiography “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields,” published this week by the University of West Virginia Press. But new and excellent reporting by Washington Post correspondent Eric Pianin revealed this week that Byrd’s 770-page book still minimizes the duration and depth of his role in the Klan and his pursuit of the bigotry for which it stands.
Pianin reported that Byrd not only wrote Grand Wizard Samuel Green of Atlanta in 1941 to say he wanted to join the KKK, but he signed up 150 recruits to form a KKK chapter in Byrd’s hometown of Crab Orchard, W.Va. Byrd has said he joined “because it offered excitement and because it was strongly opposed to communism.” Byrd wrote that he was “caught up with the idea of being part of an organization to which ‘leading persons’ belonged.” Byrd’s book does not mention his1946 letter to the Grand Wizard, urging the growth of the Klan in West Virginia _ written as a 29-year-old who’d begun his own political career in the state legislature.
Nor does the autobiography mention a Dec. 11, 1945, letter that Byrd wrote to Sen. Theodore Bilbo, D-Miss., Washington’s most noxious segregationist, to complain about President Harry Truman’s efforts to integrate the military. Byrd told Bilbo that he would never fight in the military “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 be degraded by race mongrels.”
It is a cadence and eloquence _ but hardly a sentiment _ that rings familiar today to liberals who now cheer the anti-Iraq War flourishes of the snow-haired old man whom they hail as a hero and proclaim to be “The Conscience of the Senate.”
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)