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A Word on Senator Byrd and Political Fluidity

Always the impassioned orator.

On Monday, at the age of 92, the Senate’s President pro tempore and most senior member passed away. Senator Robert C. Byrd, during his record setting 51 year tenure, was a respected, influential and controversial lawmaker. Elected as a Representative in 1952, Senator Byrd spent the entirety of his political career crafting a spot inside the Congressional walls as a powerbroker and staunch Senatorial defender. Dogged by, at most generous, a pointedly misguided membership in the Ku Klux Klan during his youth; Senator Byrd had an eternal, negative first impression to shed. Because of that, he became a political shapeshifter; someone who changed his mind on issues, people and policies over time. In an age of political rigidity, Senator Byrd was a uniquely fluid political entity.

All you have to do is look at any political race in the past decade to find the rigidity that runs the current political system. It happens on both sides of the aisle. During the 2008 Presidential primaries, former Massachusetts Govenor Mitt Romney was labeled a “flip-flopper” by every conceivable liberal outlet. Change your mind on an issue or three and get labeled with the American political kiss of death. Senator John Kerry went through the same labeling game during the 2004 Presidential election. The fact of the matter is this: Americans, on whole, find those that change their position over time to be weak. Politicians know this and use it to win votes and campaigns. What would Senator Byrd have to say about this? I’m sure he would have a strong thought or two on the matter.

The politics of flip-flopping.

At the very least, it is worth thinking about why, when a legend leaves us we stand and applaud his fluidity in the political realm yet lambast possible legends in the making for the same trait? Yes, I know, it might not be the same. Mr. Romney nor Mr. Kerry were members of the KKK; but, maybe, just maybe, that’s what makes Senator Byrd’s reversal of course all the more poignant. From KKK member to civil rights advocate is not a tiny shift in philosophy; it is monumental change in fundamental beliefs. From ardent supporter of the Vietnam War to an outspoken detractor of the War in Iraq; time, mitigating circumstances and understanding changed his views over the years. These are, of course, the starkest and most blatant of Senator Byrd’s political changes during his time in Congress. There were others as well. Some may call him a flip-flopper or a political transient. I call him something else: human. We learn, we adapt and we change our views. That is the course of everyday life for every American, European, African or South American. Why should it be any different for those who make our laws and are accountable to the very people that are continually politically fickle?

So please, read about Senator Byrd and his political and personal struggles and successes. We can all take a lesson in humility and the understanding that passions, views and convictions change as we experience life’s bumps and bruises. His did. Yours will too.

Senator Byrd will lie in state in the Senate on Thursday, July 1st, 2010.

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