Politics, Power and Sen. Byrd

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“The Former Klansman Who Backed Obama,” was the Huffington Post’s hook for its account of Sen. Robert Byrd’s demise. The New York Times‘ website came closer to the mark: “Elected a record nine times to the Senate, Mr. Byrd, 92, championed the legislative branch and brought huge amounts of federal dollars to West Virginia.”

The purposes of politics are murky and mixed: the public weal, the advancement of this-and-that, and . . . and . . . in Robert Byrd’s case, as everyone knew but discussed only occasionally, the construction of personal empires founded on constituent gratitude.

It’s very, very human. The political world works thus and always has. Julius Caesar, but for the inconvenience of a few knife wounds, could gaze upon Byrd and recognize a kindred spirit. Politics is about many things. On the top ledge is power, reinforced by longevity.

A man first elected to the Senate in 1958—when Lyndon Johnson ran the institution, Cokes cost a nickel, and high school girls wore long skirts and black suede loafers—stayed there until this week. Why? Without impeaching the memory of the late senior senator from West Virginia (who, as obituaries note, belonged to the KKK during much of the 1940s), we might reflect on the obsessions of the politically mighty and the dangers to freedom those obsessions pose.

A skill all to itself, like balancing spoons on the nose, politics logically attracts those who understand and enjoy the skill. Fine. Somebody has to do it. The problem here is paradoxical: Success can breed real danger.

The danger lies in the love it creates for the instruments of success, meaning the tools of power: laws; regulations; expensive giveaways of taxpayer money in the manner of the late senator from West Virginia; the sense (from a voter’s standpoint) of dependency on government favors; the accompanying sense of entitlement to government favors.

In a half century of Senate membership (not counting half a dozen years in the House), the late senator from West Virginia created a lot of grateful dependents. These for various reasons, including attachment to the rumble of federal gravy trains headed to West Virginia, maintained him in office.

So isn’t that just democracy—the sovereign people having their say? Ummmm . . . yes. To a point. The point itself can be hard to see. It crops up when a public official comes to view himself as indispensable—vital—untouchable. Teddy Kennedy, who came to the Senate just a few years after Byrd, certainly saw himself so. He was one more the Lord had to beckon home to open up a seat for someone else.

The term-limits movement that showed some leg in the ’80s never got as far as it deserved to. It achieved some success at the state and local levels, but not in Washington, D.C., the apex of power, where secular power’s ultimate custodians proved unwilling to renounce their prerogatives.

That attitude was of course prima facie proof of the need for constitutional or legislative limits to endless service. Yet the people who needed limiting had first to vote to limit themselves. You see the problem.

Nearly everyone has heard Lord Acton’s axiom about power: It “tends to corrupt.” Corrupt whom, though? The power-wielders alone? Just as corrupted can be the beneficiaries of the exercise of power.

The buying of votes through the bestowal of favors on voters might possibly but doesn’t have to serve the interest of policy beneficial to liberty and moral order. New courthouses or bridges, in the Byrd-West Virginia manner, make gratitude more immediate and tangible than can some generalized sense of ease. As Senate Appropriations Committee chairman and dedicated legislative tactician, Byrd kept the bridges and federal buildings coming. At the expense of non-West Virginians. Naturally.

Should heaven prove his next stop, the late senator from West Virginia will find power arrangements slightly different: no voters to entice with favors, no positions or offices to claim and guard jealously. What a revelation!

Meantime, here on our power-mad earth, let’s finally do term limits.


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