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Published July 11 2010

Nelson: On the big stuff, Byrd got it right

Years ago it never would have occurred to me to think of Robert Byrd, just-deceased Democrat senator from West Virginia, as anything other than the king of pork. He dragged billions of federal tax dollars – i.e., your money and mine – into his own state. For those who think looting others for one’s own favorites is a travesty of morality, Byrd was a hiss and a byword. All the more so when Byrd paid so much lip service to the Constitution and always carried a copy of it around.

He was a difficult man to pin down ideologically, going up and down in conservative and liberal groups’ ratings on votes. Radio talk-show host Sean Hannity constantly derided him as Robert “KKK” Byrd, as in fact he was a KKK member at one time. Byrd claimed to have repented. Hannity’s morality runs more to praising Republican presidents who get many thousands killed for a lie.

I perked up when Byrd took a lonely, courageous stand against another war with Iraq, a war he thought would be disastrous even if we won, unconstitutional in Congress’ abdication of war-making authority to the president, and an unprecedented and foolish move to make war on nations that never threatened us. While the world buzzed about the upcoming war in 2003, Congress was nearly silent in its knavish, slavish acceptance. Byrd railed: “Yet this chamber is, for the most part, silent. … There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. … We stand passively mute in the United States Senate. …”

In a series of speeches, Byrd pointed out that the war resolution enabled the president to wage war at will, his judgment being the sole criterion by which America would war across the world. Indeed, for the first time “the president asked Congress for authority to launch an invasion against a sovereign nation that did not constitute a clear and imminent threat to … the American people.” The only error in Byrd’s words was that the second Iraq war wasn’t the first time America fought an aggressive, not defensive, war.

Byrd said what few politicians would: that the Iraq war was apparently built upon massaged, cherry-picked intelligence in order to con the American people. He repeatedly argued that the Bush administration had violated the letter and the intent of the law, and even the clear “constitutional power of the purse” (referring to Bush’s secretly appropriating war funds without consulting Congress before the war).

Maybe Byrd understood congressional power and the Constitution better than we thought. His porkmongering was hypocritical, and yet in matters far more important, such as the balance of powers and making war, he took an unpopular, correct and informed stand. This is the Byrd I saw the last few years, and some of his books now partly make up my library. RIP.

Nelson is a Fargo postal worker and contributor to The Forum’s commentary page. E-mail r.cnelson@702com.net