This was indeed a “thunderous” week for me, but as things get put back in order, I can focus on the more momentous events of the week. I offer kudos and catcalls to people and events outside of my own little universe.
The death of Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress, has attracted much attention, with accolades and condemnation across the board. A legacy is the culmination of an entire life, good and bad; a man should live his life as if his legacy depended on it, because it certainly does. To shower a person with just the good without offering some truths that were negative, is a lie. Respect for the dead is one thing; the truth is quite another.
Senator Byrd is being hailed as a guardian and expert of Congressional rules, a courtly, polite person who put his constituents ahead of partisanship. This is all well and good. However, he was also the only sitting Senator who had been a member of the Ku Klux Clan. Additionally, as head of the Appropriations Committee, he funneled exorbitant funds to his state of West Virginia and thus, was one of the biggest “porkers” in Congress. Does constituency loyalty have moral precedence over national need? Andrew Sullivan, unabashedly and without apology, writes:
“Speak no ill of the dead? Well, let me simply say that the racist, populist, larcenous bigot of a Senator — a man who robbed the American tax-payer to pave his state with baubles and bribes — is not going to be much mourned in these parts.”
Senator Barbara Mikulski has kinder words for Byrd:
“Senator Byrd was a mentor and a teacher. I was the first democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right. He took me under his wing and taught me the rules of the Senate. He knew the rules and he know how to rule.
“He said to stay loyal to the country and to the Constitution. From the first day he wanted me to succeed. He had the style and the manner of another era. That could teach us a few lessons today. He stood for citizenship and for his country, not partisanship and petty politics. If you love the Senate, you love Bob Byrd.” “Today is a sad day for America, for West Virginia and for the U.S. Senate. Senator Byrd was an icon who had five loves – for his country, for the Constitution, for the Senate, for the people of West Virginia and for his beloved wife Erma.
David Broder wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post today that, despite its clarity, generosity and even some truth about the life and career of Byrd, neglected to face up to the dark side of Byrd. As the title of this article, “What’s Missing”, means, Broder wrote:
What Byrd and other senators of his generation understood is that on a wide variety of routine issues, partisan calculations are always at play, but there is a category of questions that truly is different. And on those issues, senators are bound to consider the broad national interest.
That obligation falls especially on the Senate, as Byrd always pointed out, because it — unlike the other part of Congress — is not designed as a representative body, close to the people. The senators are few in number — only two per state, no matter its size. Their tenure is longer than that of the president and three times as long as a House member. Their constituencies are broad and diverse. Everything contrives to give them a degree of independence, to exercise their best judgment on the national issues.
Today, unfortunately, on the big issues that ought to be beyond partisanship, action in the national interest has almost vanished because the party leaders, unlike Byrd and Baker when they led their parties in the Senate, do not display that consciousness or evoke it in others.
So as I try to be open to the vast ideological about-faces of Byrd, I still cannot help but remember his early, racist stance, also explained away as a convenient nod to his constituents. But it is not adequate for a man, even a young man still in his politically formative years, to use the excuse of currently accepted and expected social mores to justify his bigotry. The KKK killed Black people, hung them from trees when a beating would not suffice. So even a decent, immature politico should have known that this behavior was unconstitutional, not to mention heinous. Cheers for the longest-serving Congressman, but jeers for his dark history. Personal values, ethics and morality should not come and go depending on the accepted social climate or one’s career ambitions. You are what you are; atonement can only excuse matters just so far and the resulting legacy is what one has after all the blanks are filled in, good AND bad.
The unanimous confirmation of General Petraeus as the leader in Afghanistan was no surprise. I still see his new appointment as a demotion for him. Going from Central Command head (having broad strategic authority globally) to commander of the war in Afghanistan has got to be, even if just on paper, a come-down for him. However, Petraeus led the successful surge in Iraq which finally resulted in our partial leave-taking. Thus, President Obama made a good choice to have Petraeus spearhead the assault in Afghanistan, even if it meant a hit to his personal resume. Plus, let’s face reality here: the General serves at the pleasure of his Commander-in-Chief. Furthermore, if Petraeus leads us to “victory” in Afghanistan, all the admiration and gratefulness will be his. As John F. Kennedy said: “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.”
This week had Elena Kagan weaving her way through the Senate confirmation hearings to take a seat on the high Court. She exhibited a deep knowledge of the law, a propensity for remaining impartial and considering the constitutionality of all that comes across her desk rather than her own personal opinion and demonstrated a wonderful sense of humor. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Kagan where she had been on Christmas day 2009, when the underwear terrorist’s bomb airborne plot was aborted, she responded:
I almost fell out of my seat when I heard that quip!
She is sharp as a tack, endearing and hugely funny. She will get confirmed. But do not be surprised if, one day while considering a case before the Supreme Court, she casts a vote on the conservative side. A Ruth Bader Ginsburg, across-the-boards liberal, is not who Elena Kagan is, in my humble opinion. Just an inkling I feel. The Republicans, no doubt, will do all they can to prevent Kagan from taking a seat on the Court, but they will fail miserably. Isn’t it ironic how the GOP considers “judicial activism” to exist when there are more liberal members on the Court, but “traditionalism” to rule the day when the Court’s majority are conservatives? Nevertheless, kudos to Kagan for a job well done, so far.
Finally, I wanted to let you know that I am midway into reading the book “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The book recounts the most recent Presidential primaries (Democratic) and general election, focusing on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, John McCain and our Sarah Palin. I am only up to the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, around spring, 2007. This book is better than any beach book, summer romance story or vacation mystery. It is written in a straight-forward manner and the cohesive, chronological approach is easy to follow.
Remember the primary campaign? How many times were we Obama supporters so frustrated that he “couldn’t close the deal” with Hillary, or that he did not hit Hillary back when she said nasty things about him? The ups and downs of the campaign were hard to take sometimes. What I have learned from this book is that Obama was just as frustrated as we were. This man is definitely human.
Also though, I learned that Hillary has a huge brain, big heart and bottomless work ethic. Yes, she really wanted to fulfill her personal ambition of being the President, but just as much, she cares, she is a fighter and she has definite leadership skills. John Edwards was a sleaze from the word “go”. No delusion there. So kudos to Heliemann and Helperin for keeping me so entertained this week. God knows I needed it.
All in all, an interesting week. May we have a quieter, less momentous, less thunderous time next week. Have a great July 4th!