Thursday, March 03, 2005

Senator Byrd, National Embarrassment? 

Yesterday on Fox's "The Newhour with Brit Hume," one of the news items was the announcement that Senator Byrd, Democrat from West Virginia, in a speech delivered on the floor of the Senate, had compared the congressional Republicans to Adolph Hitler.

This incident is typical of what passes for news judgment at the Fair and Balanced Fox News Network. A discussion of what the Senator had said in full might have been a reasonable item to cover, although if Fox had chosen not to say anything about the speech, that would have been defensible. To pretend that the entirety of the news value of the speech lay in the supposed comparison that was featured, is not. However, it was perfectly predictable, as was the crescendo of scorn and derision that washed over a small subset of the words the Senator had actually spoken on the floor of the Senate.

So, let's look at a fair and balanced sampling of typical reactions to the mention of Hitler in a critique aimed at anything other than Nazi Germany.

At Obsidian Wings, Sebastian Holsclaw, under the title, "Speaking of the Judiciary," introduces three short paragraphs from Senator Byrd's speech thusly:
In the vein of hatred is a poison, Democratic Senator Byrd goes off the deep end:
And then offers this conclusion:
There has got to be some sort of irony god laughing when a former member of the Klan, who personally used the fillibuster to try to block the Civil Rights Act, is giving insulting lectures comparing his opponents to the Nazis for trying to limit fillibusters in a very specific case.
The post generates a large comments thread, well worth reading, in which Senator Byrd gets a lot of support, as well as attacks which continue and expand that of the original post: herewith a sampling of the latter:

As for Byrd, the only sign I can see that anyone, anywhere takes him seriously is that he continues to be reelected by his constituency. Anyone here going to stand up for Byrd?


If you can't find anything mildly humorous or even amusingly ironic about a former Klan kleagle warning about the perils of fascism, I suggest that perhaps baggage claim has misplaced your sense of humor.

Posted by: Slartibartfast | March 2, 2005 08:56 AM

A post that mocks hyperbolic language on a serious issue, while ignoring the issue -- trivial.

The issue? You mean that the Senate Democrats--who are facing virtual irrelevance if the nuclear option is invoked--have chosen to let a borderline senile fool with a checkered past and a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth be their most visible spokesperson in opposition to the plan that threatens them? This is like letting that nutty Republican Congressman who wants to nuke Syria have control of the Republican floor time for a debate about the defense budget. Good grief, you've got eloquent speakers on your side--Biden or Obama could easily go out there and make their point without sounding like a deranged escapee from a rest home. If this was my party being this ill-served by its elected representatives on an important issue, I'd be rather ticked off.

Of course, this is the age of Dean--perhaps Robert "KKK" Byrd is considered the kinder and gentler voice for the new order of the Democratic Party.

Posted by: M. Scott Eiland | March 2, 2005 01:07 PM

On the other hand, in the House, there is much less respect for seniority, which is why the Republicans can keep their crazies under wraps and why it was the House that moved to impeach Clinton and why it was the Republican leadership of the Senate that neutered that.

I'd say that the two-thirds requirement for removal did the neutering--there was a lot less incentive to vote for removal when the Democrats had decided en masse to play at being the O.J. jury.

Posted by: M. Scott Eiland | March 2, 2005 01:21 PM

The mouth of at least one Irony God must be twitching toward a smile at that comparison of the charges against President Clinton with those against O. J. Simpson, not to mention the assumption the O.J. jury made their judgment solely and brazenly on the basis of racial solidarity, without reference to facts or ideas, in other words, stupidly, which then becomes an implied aspect of their race.

But the critique isn't my focus. Senator Byrd's actual words is. Read the speech for yourself in this small, PDF file, which at five pages is completely manageable.

You'll note that Senator Byrd begins, brilliantly, with that 1939 Frank Capra, good governance is the highest patriotism, classic, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and quotes from a "moving" 1942 review of the film from the Hollywood Reporter, cited by Capra himself in his autobiography.

Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, chosen by French Theaters as the final English language film to be shown before the recent Nazi-orderedcountrywide ban on American and British films went into effect, was roundly cheered...

Storms of spontaneous applause broke out at the sequence when, under the Abraham Lincoln monument in the Capital, the word, Liberty, appeared on the screen and the Stars and Stripes began fluttering over the head of the great Emancipator in the cause of liberty.

Similarly cheers and acclamation punctuated the famous speech of the young senator on man's rights and dignity. It was... as though the joys, suffering, love and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything, found expression for the last time....

For those who may not have seen it, Mr. Smith is the fictional story of one young Senator's crusade against forces of corruption, and his lengthy filibuster for the values he holds dear.

My, how times have changed. These days Smith would be called an obstructionist. Rumor has it that there is a plot afoot in the Senate to curtail the right of extended debate in this hallowed chamber, not in accordance with its rules, mind you, but by fiat from theChair.

The so-called nuclear option purports to be directed solely at the Senate's advice and consent prerogatives regarding federal judges. But, the claim that no right exists to filibuster judges aims an arrow straight at the heart of the Senate's long tradition of unlimited debate.

Senator Byrd proceeds with a short constitutional history of the filibuster, including specific examples of its use at various junctures of our history.

Here's how the discussion of what happened in Germany in the early to mid-thirties is framed in the Senator's speech:

Free and open debate on the Senate floor ensures citizens a say in their government. The American people are heard, through their Senator, before their money is spent, before their civil liberties are curtailed, or before a judicial nominee is confirmed for a lifetime appointment. We are the guardians, the stewards, the protectors of our people. Our voices are their voices. If we restrain debate on judges today, what will be next: the rights of the elderly to receive social security; the rights of the handicapped to be treated fairly; the rights of the poor to obtain a decent education? Will all debate soon fall before majority rule?

edit (It should be noted that this excluded paragraph contains examples of conservatives issues to which a majority could give short shirft were the nuclear option to become settled practice.)

Many times in our history we have taken up arms to protect a minority against the tyrannical majority in other lands. We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men.

But witness how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law to cruel and unjust ends.

Historian Alan Bullock writes that Hitler's dictatorship rested on the constitutional foundation of a single law, the Enabling Law. Hitler needed a two-thirds vote to pass that law, and he cajoled his opposition in the Reichstag to support it. Bullock writes that Hitler was prepared to promise anything to get his bill through, with the appearances of legality preserved intact. And he succeeded.

Shocking? No, I don't think so either. In fact, the Senator is not making a direct comparison between Republicans and "Nazis," he's focusing on Alan Bullock's historical perception that...
Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality; he recognized the enormous psychological value of having the law on his side. Instead, he turned the law inside out and made illegality legal.
And here is how Senator Byrd finds that relevant to what is threatened by Senator Frist, for one, even in a country that views itself, rightly thus far, as being a nation of laws, not of men.
And that is what the nuclear option seeks to do to Rule XXII of the Standing Rules of the Senate. It seeks to alter the rules by sidestepping the rules, thus making the impermissible the rule. Employing the nuclear option, engaging a pernicious, procedural maneuver to serve immediate partisan goals, risks violating our nation's core democratic values and poisoning the Senate's deliberative process.
Ask yourself, does that really sound like "a borderline senile fool with a checkered past and a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth?" No, I don't think so either. Which brings us to the question of whether or not it is possible to believe that the three critics quoted above could really have read the text of Senator Byrd's remarks before they made their comments. And that will leave open the question of whether or not it is more angering and depressing if they did, or if they didn't? We report, you decide.

What is inarguable, it seems to me, is that the approach of Byrd's critics is typical of the approach of our ruling party, from its propagandists who blog, right up to its very topmost reaches that control the Presidency and the Congress, and have a majority on the Supreme Court, to opinions that differ from their own. Mis-state, deride, mis-label, and accuse, the more outrageous the accusation, the better.

Senator Byrd offers another, more important lesson for those of us on the liberal, Democratic, left. He's recently become a hero to most of us, rightly so. But it is also true that he began as a defender of the racist South. And more recently, Senator Byrd took a singular, and I think wrong stance on an aspect of the events surrounding the impeachment of President Clinton. If you remember, he spoke out angrily, passionately, and as always, eloquently against what had happened after the articles of impeachment were voted out of the House, when almost the entire Democratic caucus in the House organized themselves to show their support for the President by going en masse to the White House to stand next to Clinton when he announced his intention to answer the charges against him.

Senator Byrd was appalled by what he saw as a spectacle. His response got immediate, intense, and approving coverage from the SCLM; they couldn't get enough of Senator Byrd spewing disgust at his fellow Democrats, and especially at President Clinton. Not only did I think that Senator Byrd was dead wrong, I could feel my ire rising everytime I saw him interviewed hither and non, which was often and regularly.

In fact, I thought it was one of Richard Gebhardt's finest moments. He understood that the entire series of moves toward impeachment, on the part of Republicans, was aimed primarily at getting Clinton to resign. That weekend after the actual impeachment was ratified by the House would be Clinton's most vulnerable moment. Gebhardt understood that the entire impeachment was an insult to the Constitution itself, and an attempt to turn the law and tradition inside out, which for him, and the rest of the House Democrats was more important than Clinton's personal fate.

Though it pained me that Senator Byrd didn't see it that way, and though I believed that he had injured the Democratic Party in interview after interview, I also believed that he would ultimately vote against impeachment, which he did, and I remembered the many times in the past that the Senator had been on the correct side, from my point of view, of difficult, controversial issues, like whether or not Clarence Thomas belonged on the Supreme Court. I remembered, in other words, that Senator Byrd is a complicated human being, who had not suddenly lost his mind, or suddenly become spineless. I remembered that he might well become a hero again, who I would be happy to have on my side again. I'm glad I did.

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