Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in United States history, passed away on June 28, 2010. As a West Virginian, I greatly appreciate the love and respect that he had for our State. But I question whether he has really accomplished what so many have been celebrating upon his passing.
In our local Sunday paper, the public statements of prominent citizens all repeated the same themes: Robert Byrd loved, studied, supported, and protected the constitutional role of the United States Senate, and Robert Byrd loved West Virginia with all his heart. He wrote a multi-volume history of the Senate and always carried a copy of the constitution in his coat pocket. Across the State, at least thirty roads, bridges, buildings, and programs bear his name, representing billions of federal dollars that he has funneled into our State. His affection for and dedication to Senate and the State of West Virginia cannot be questioned.
And yet, at the same time, a constant barrage of statistics throughout his tenure have told us that West Virginia still leads dozens of bad lists and is at the bottom of dozens of good lists, to our great and constant embarrassment. According to Bryan Bolduc of the Wall Street Journal (“Robert Byrd’s Highways to Nowhere,” July 10, 2010), West Virginia ranks 48th in both median household and per capita income. Over fifty percent of the state’s economy “relies on spending by local, state and federal government—the highest level of any state,” and “West Virginia ranked dead last among the 50 states in the Fraser Institute's Index of Economic Freedom of North America.” All statistics aside, West Virginia has a national reputation of being one of the most poverty stricken and economically backward states in the nation.
Of course, Robert Byrd is not the cause of all these problems. The causes are complex and stretch back through nearly 150 years of statehood. However, in spite of the fact that we have had the longest serving senator in U.S. history, elected again and again by the people of West Virginia, we still have not risen above the bottom in dozens of social, educational, health, and economic categories during his tenure.
Some will argue that since Robert Byrd was a federal senator, he was not responsible for improving conditions on the State and local level. And yet, these are the same people that celebrate the billions of dollars of federally funded projects that they claim are his legacy. Regardless of what Byrd has done for this state, the question remains-- has his federally funded legacy in any way mitigated our endemic problems? Some might say that had Robert Byrd not been our senator for the last 50 years West Virginia might be worse off than what it is. I simply respond that it is harder to get worse off than the bottom.
So, while Robert Byrd is not responsible for our State’s problems, he appears to have done little to alleviate them. Yet, we have elected him again and again and again. And for what? For his constant flag-waving in the name of West Virginia? For his having authored a multi-volume history of the Senate? For his genteel, old-school statesmanship? I doubt the average West Virginian has been motivated to put him back in office for any of these most nationally recognized characteristics. No. West Virginians repeatedly re-elected him for two reasons—1) because he funneled billions of federal funds into dozens of pork projects throughout the state, leading to the perception that he has accomplished something lasting on our behalf, and 2) because he has a reputation for using his political heft to help West Virginians in bad situations. For instance, one person who was repeatedly refused black lung benefits asked for Robert Byrd’s help. Those benefits came through almost immediately with apologies. Every West Virginian knows someone who knows someone who received similar aid from Senator Byrd. And West Virginians have loved him for it, enough to vote him into office for over 50 years.
Of course, Robert Byrd is to be commended for these noble interventions. One cannot help but respect his political clout and willingness to help individuals who needed help. Frankly, however, these anecdotes simply serve to remind us that, though he was a federal senator, Robert Byrd did indeed have great power on the State and local level, and West Virginia remains at the bottom of good lists and at the top of bad ones nonetheless.
What then are we to make of West Virginia’s loyalty to this politician who has not significantly changed our State for the better in spite of 50 years of power? What exactly have we been celebrating upon his passing? Perhaps it is mainly that, finally, we West Virginians have something to be proud of, trivial though it may be. We can now claim to have had the longest serving senator in the history of the United States of America. That was us. No one else. We did it, over and over and over again. We’re number one.