Monday, June 20, 2005

Klan of the Cave Boors

Bob Byrd's sheets didn't always stay on his bed, and his confessions about his year as an Exalted Cyclops appear to be the newsworthy bits of his cinderblock-sized new memoir.

Some people love to jump all over the old man about this. And some already are accusing the MSM of twisty apologetics in its coverage of the book.

Oh, I understand the temptation. Byrd is a highly partisan senator. That's no crime; he just happens to be a partisan of the party I usually disagree with these days. And that party claims to occupy the high ground now in the matter of race in America, though it often confuses "defending the welfare rolls and limiting police powers" as purely black vs. white issues.

And certainly Byrd's leading the charge against Condi Rice's nomination was a bad call.

But I've always respected Bob Byrd for his classical learning. He at least is capable of telling you what the Senate is supposed to do, even if he doesn't always do it. And he actually took the time to read the authors that the Founders had in mind when they framed the Constitution. Furthermore, he's a genuine American success story, a blue-collar worker from a poor community who is about to become the longest-serving Senator in our history.

A great many Americans were drawn to the Klan in the interwar years, for a variety of reasons. I'm willing to allow that some of them were there for honest, if woefully misguided, reasons.

The Americans who resisted the Klan, who saw through its shabby patriotic appeals, are the ones who deserve our respect and gratitude. But having been on the wrong side in that era, if it's honestly repudiated and if no real violence was done, ought not to be an automatic disqualification.

Many Americans have been on the wrong sides on one day or another in their lives, and come to their senses about it. It's the nature of us: we're fallible, and capable of rising above our nature. The great leaders we tend to revere -- Washington, Lincoln -- are not the most perfect, but the ones who grew the most in their public lives.

Furthermore, piling on Byrd about this seems a particularly weak strategy for the right. The nature of conservatives is to be slow to change, and attitudes about race have changed dramatically in America in the last century.

There's a certain pleasure in "Doing It To Them." I understand that, too. I'm not fond of Trent Lott, but the quote that got him run out of his leadership job seemed innocuous and defensible to me. But I'm one who thinks the Confederate battleflag still has a legitimate place in Southern culture.

And I'm for being consistent about that. It's the honest thing to do. It will earn you more respect, in the long run. A certain amount of the Bush Derangement Syndrome seems to be a side-effect of people who supported Bill Clinton and watched the rabid attacks against him. When you point out to them how irrational they are about Bush, they'll answer with a reference to Clinton's experience. Yeah, but if it was wrong then, why is it right now?

Whenever you run up against a situation like that, step back before you speak, and ask yourself, "how would I feel about this if, instead of a politician I oppose, this was a politician I admire?" Because you know, sooner or later, it will be.

People change. They grow. Let them. Even the ones on the other side of the aisle. Almost half a century after the event, many people are still familiar with the Little Rock desegregation picture of a neatly dressed young black girl walking to school with a white girl following her, her face twisted into a mask of spitting hatred, shouting, "nigger, nigger, nigger!" Americans who weren't even alive then have seen it in their school textbooks and on PBS specials.

How many have seen the photo taken years later, by the same photographer, of the same two women, now matronly? They are chatting cordially on the high school steps about mutual friends. Apologies, on the one hand, and forgiveness, on the other, have long since been exchanged. They embraced, and they live together in the same city.

Both pictures are true. It says something that we as a nation cling to the earlier one. I'd like to belong to the American political faction that sees the second picture, too.