The Washington Post

Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jun 29, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column Robert Byrd: A story of change and redemption in which Gene writes: "'End of an era' is an overused trope, but in this case it's appropriate: The last of the old Southern Democrats is gone."

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our regular discussion. No time for preliminaries today -- let's get started.

Gene, you wrote an nice piece about the redemption of Sen. Byrd. He lived long enough to change with the times and develop a modern view of race and America. Would you hold historical leaders, like Washington, Jefferson, Jackson & Lincoln, to their historically backward views on race, or would you allow that they too would have evolved had their times evolved around them?

The reference is to today's column on the late Sen. Robert Byrd -- a reminder that this revered figure was once a card-carrying member of the KKK and joined in the filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To his credit, he did change. As for the historical figures you mention, I recognize their greatness but I do hold them accountable for their views on slavery. There were abolitionists who recognized how morally bankrupt it was to found a "free" and "independent" nation in which human beings were enslaved.

I think you are letting Sen. Byrd off too easy here. I've always thought that his vehement opposition to the Civil Rights Act (when he was in his mid-40s -- no youthful indiscretion) was more reprehensible than similar conduct by Southern Democrats, because he wasn't subject to the same political constraints. West Virginia wasn't and isn't the deep South. Unlike, say, a Thurmond or a Russell, whom one might charitably speculate to have been more of a political opportunist than a racist, Byrd didn't have to take the positions he did, as loudly as he did, to stay in office. Instead, he seems to have been a true believer in some unforgiveably despicable views. What you view as change and redemption, I see as quite likely a cynical decision on his part to move to the left to retain his political power as the Senate Democrats became more liberal.

Point well taken, and I admit that when I looked at this column this morning, it seemed a tad softer in tone than I might have wanted. West Virginia is weird, in that it isn't part of the deep South and wasn't in the Confederacy, but did adopt Jim Crow laws after the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision made that possible. So maybe Byrd went out of his way, but it isn't as if his state was particularly enlightened about race.

Not to speak ill of the dead, but Byrd's epiphany coincided with his ambitions to assume a leadership role with Senate Democrats. Until then, his racism seemed to run pretty deep, at least if you consider he was a brother-in-arms with Theodore Bilbo (not to mention not just a KKK member but a RECRUITER). So why do you act as if he had a genuine change of heart, instead of making a pragmatic decision? At least Strom COULD have stayed with his racist positions; Jesse Helms won reelection as an open bigot, and Strom could have too, but he changed anyway.

Helms is an outlier, true. But I disagree that Thurmond could have remained a staunch segregationist. I'm not saying he had a Road to Damascus experience, just that he realized it was better for him politically to give all that up. Strom was, of course, one of my home-state senators. I actually have an autographed photograph of him and me (with a group), inscribed, "To my good friend, Eugene Robinson." Circa 1970. It's a long story.

For the life of me, I can't fathom why the Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee are taking after Thurgood Marshall. Is it that they can't trash Kagan? That's never stopped them in the past. I don't know if there is any political downside for the individuals but sure makes them, as a group, look like complete kooks.

If I were in a mood to be flip, I'd say, "If it looks like a kook, and quacks like a kook..." But seriously, folks, I share your bewilderment at the notion that the Senate Republicans are going to make attacking Thurgood Marshall the main thrust of their assault on Kagan. I don't know in what universe that's a good idea, but I can't imagine that it is in this one.

I, too, have to admire Byrd's transformation from KKK member to the leader he eventually became. Though, I have to ask: Would the media be heaping similar praise on a Republican who used to be in the KKK who now was living a repentant, different life? My guess this is something that is admired in Democrats, but a deal-killer for Republicans.

It would certainly be a deal-killer for any senator who continued to take positions that were widely seen as hostile to African-Americans. Byrd didn't.

Gene: Thanks for helping us all understand this strange politcal world of ours. As I listened to the Kyl, Cornyn and Sessions remarks yesterday and the constant evoking of Justice Thurgood Marshall's name, it seemed as if the Republican Party was about to begin re-advocating for 'separate but equal.' Has the Republican Party gone completely tone deaf, or is the debate more about race than I realized?

We'll see, as the hearing progresses. I'm waiting to see if any GOP senator, in attacking Marshall, actually goes after Brown v. Board of Education. I doubt it, but they're full of surprises.

How would you compare Byrd and Strom Thurmond? In his early days, if I have read correctly Thurmond was considered to be more "progressive" than Byrd, due to his reaction to the Willie Earl lynching, at least until he decided not to be "out-segregationed" in 1948. 

My impression is that both men were opportunists mostly concerned with themselves. I think you may be more sympathetic to Byrd due to his stand on the Iraq war, which I believe stems mostly from trying to preserve the prerogatives of Congress against the executive, even if most people in Congress don't want the responsibility.

I did admire Byrd's stand on the Iraq war but wasn't thinking of that when I wrote the column. On race and segregation, you can call it a wash. Maybe I have more visceral feelings about Strom because I'm from South Carolina.

Mr. Robinson- You frequently imply malicious intent when deriding the use of the term states' rights. In my case, and I presume in the case of many of your readers, states' rights means stemming the nanny state and does not carry the historical albatross that you hang on it. You were raised in a bygone era. Yet, this man, who epitomized the actual historical evil intent of states' rights is somehow more enlightened? Is there reason to see him in a different light, other than political party, than Jesse Helms? "Those were just the times back then" is a lame excuse and one for which I've always had a personal distaste.

"States' rights" had a very specific, ugly meaning in the "bygone era" when I was raised. For me, it will always have that connotation. From conversations I've had recently with Latinos in Arizona, that meaning is far from obsolete.

Gene Weingarten was discussing how in 1924 Delegates to the Democratic National Convention were debating whether or not to accept the Ku Klux Klan views. It is interesting how times change, which is why I don't necessarily hold it against someone in their 90s for views they may have had when they were young. Yet, I wonder what history will think of us. I often think people who opposed gay rights will be remembered negatively 50 years from now. Of course, I don't know that, but that is my prediction.

I am convinced that your prediction is right, and that it won't take 50 years for its accuracy to be demonstrated.

I was drafted and did advanced Army basic training in San Antonio in 1957. San Antonio was racially segregated, but Fort Sam Houston was integrated. I am white, so could go into town and be treated like a human being. My black fellow servicemen could not. Mostly, they remained on the base or, on the weekends, took a bus to Mexico. How important has the military been to contributing to black equality in the United States?

The integration of the armed forces (thanks to Harry Truman) was an important step in the civil rights movement.

Uh, geographically perhaps not, but in terms of race, racism and race relations, I think Henry Louis Gates Jr., who grew up there, as well as European American friends of mine who went to college out there more recently, would disagree with you.

As I said, West Virginia had laws mandating Jim Crow segregation similar to those in the states of the Deep South.

I think the best possible light for the Thurgood Marshall bashing is that think of same-sex marriage. Right now, Iowa has it because of a court ruling. The Republican viewpoint expressed in the Kagan hearings is that whether or not you agree with a law, even ones as bad as segregated schools, it ought to be the legislative and excutive branches that deal with it, not the judicial branch. I'm not buying it and they are selling it horribly anywhow.

The Republican senators, in my view, are trying to walk an awfully thin line. They want to use Justice Marshall's career as an example of "judicial activism." But they can't frontally attack his most historic contribution to American jurisprudence, which came with Brown v. Board, long before he was on the bench. And really, it's hard to hold up Chief Justice Roberts and the conservative members of the court as believers in judicial restraint. If you look at the gun control cases and the campaign finance case, they're willing to upend longstanding precedent. You can argue whether they're right or wrong, but you can't call it restraint.

Do you think Americans care about Haiti? I mean it's had such a bad recent history and unique in the western hemisphere for its brutal poverty and low standard of living. Yet even with all the focus on the massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake that happen in Port-au-Prince that just happened on Jan. 12th of this year, it's completely gone from the national discussion. Could you maybe email your pals like Rachel Maddow or the editorial board of WaPo that even just one or two follow-up on the relief efforts in Haiti might be nice?

A change of subject: You're right, and it's definitely time to take a look at how efforts to rebuild are going in Haiti.

Just because liberals had control of the Court for fifty years doesn't mean they paid attention to the Constitution.

The overturned precedents on gun control and campaign finance go back a lot longer than that.

Nice try rehabilitating Sen. Byrd. But he was a leader of the Klan not just a member. If his membership was no big deal in the 1950's and 1960's then why did his oppoents raise the issue and why did he feel compelled to lie about it in 1952. It's great that he changed over time even if his change was for pragmatic reasons, but you can't whitewash his past.

Uh, right. That's why I wrote about it.

"And really, it's hard to hold up Chief Justice Roberts and the conservative members of the court as believers in judicial restraint. If you look at the gun control cases and the campaign finance case, they're willing to upend longstanding precedent." This is actually something that's really puzzled me for a very long time. I really don't understand how the right can call more left-leaning judges "activist," given their cavalier disregard for precedent. Wouldn't it make more sense for everyone to admit that, on occasion, one does legislate one's opinion, and trying to make sure this doesn't become a problem *is the whole reason there are nine of them*? I don't get it. Especially given that I can't imagine anyone but virulently racist extremists thinking the legislative victories that were so important to civil rights were a bad idea. Perhaps it is some failure of imagination on my part, but I cannot imagine courts taking a stand for the civil rights of GLBT people like me is anything other than a similar thing, so I fundamentally fail to see how it's supposedly overreaching...

During his confirmation hearings, Justice Alito spoke of how his heritage as the son of Italian immigrants informed his decision-making as a judge. But Justice Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark was attacked as evidence of activism, bias, even racism. Nobody has explained to me what the difference was.


Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks for participating, and I hope to see you again next week.

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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