What about Byrd?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Dec. 18 2002 2:28 PM

What About Byrd?

Unlike Thurmond, he renounced his racist past.

Since posting an item pointing out that, contrary to Washington legend, Strom Thurmond never renounced his segregationist past, Chatterbox has been inundated with rude e-mails. The theme of these e-mails is: What about former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd? Byrd, a Democrat who still represents West Virginia, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan when he was a young man. Past membership in the Klan is heavier moral baggage than past advocacy of segregation. But Byrd, unlike Thurmond, renounced his youthful participation in a racist cause. See, for example, this exchange with CNN's Bernard Shaw in Dec. 1993:

Q: What has been your biggest mistake and your biggest success?
 
A: Well, it's easy to state what has been my biggest mistake. The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan. And I've said that many times. But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts. That was an albatross around my neck that I will always wear. You will read it in my obituary that I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan
. 

Contrast that with an interview Thurmond gave Joseph Stroud of the Charlotte Observer in July 1998 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his presidential bid on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. Asked if he wanted to apologize, Thurmond said, "I don't have anything to apologize for," and "I don't have any regrets." Asked if he thought the Dixiecrats were right, Thurmond said, "Yes, I do." Thurmond said this four years ago!

Chatterbox has not yet received any rude e-mails asking: What about Senate Democrat Ernest Hollings? Hollings ran for governor of South Carolina in 1958 pledging to protect "the Southern way of life," which in those days meant segregation. Once in office, though, Hollings switched sides and supported integration. When Howell Raines of the New York Times asked Hollings in 1983 about his brief career as a segregationist, Hollings didn't just say he knew it was wrong now. He said, "I knew it was wrong" then.

Have Byrd and Hollings atoned sufficiently for their previous views and policies? Probably not. But they have renounced them. Thurmond never will.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.