We live in a time of few great leaders. Instead we have actors, practitioners of rhetoric and hyperbole, buzz words and sound bites. Leadership is about how you look, how you sound, how you behave, passing various litmus tests, and translating the latest polling data into acceptable speeches designed to garnish the most popularity.
Leadership is not about vision anymore. Vision requires specifics and even our most eloquent and charismatic politicians (President Obama being the master of charisma, for example) are vague on specifics within the glorified grandiose.
Statesmanship was in critical condition in our political process. It may very well have died with Senator Robert Byrd.
Byrd was an interesting political phenomenon. He certainly was not above playing the political game. Part of Statesmanship is knowing that game and playing it to your advantage, but with tangible substance. He literally fiddled his way into the Senate. He reflected the prejudices of his constituency. But, he also transcended those prejudices and lead West Virginia in a time of dramatic cultural change.
In our more recent times of political polarization, Byrd conducted himself in an unfashionably civil manner, respecting the nature of the Senate as an almost sacred trust. For his civility, his incisive understanding of the US Constitution, and his intelligent craftsmanship of legislation Robert Byrd was respected by both sides of the isle, most notably by his opponents, something very few other serving Senators can claim.
To that extent, Robert Byrd is the last of a by-gone era in American politics. An era when differences of policy and opinion were not sufficient reasons for aggressive discourteousness. Robert Byrd never yelled “You lie” when he did not have the podium in a public proceeding. He waited his turn. Then he used a civil tone and an educated, rational, point-by-point analysis to show how a lie was a lie without ever calling anyone a “liar.”
That requires a measure of restraint inherent to civil public debate and policy formation. That requires Statesmanship.
There was never a better example of this than in a couple of speeches given by Byrd on the eve of Bush’s ill-conceived Second Iraq War. They are the finest political speeches I have had the honor to hear in the last decade of tumultuous politics.
Not many speeches are printed in the mainstream press in full anymore. His February 12, 2003 speech was. In a rare display, Byrd was critical of the Senate itself. He chastised his fellow Senators, civilly, on the lack of serious debate about the impending of war. There was no examination of the impending act of aggression, of pre-emption. This, at a time when the country was ready for war, ready to kick Saddam Hussein’s ass. This, even though the majority of his constituency supported the impending war, believed the lies about weapons of mass destruction and Hussein’s involvement with Al Qaeda.
Robert Byrd might have believed these to be lies (at the time no one knew for sure) but he did not call them such. He did not call Bush a “liar.” Instead, he expressed his doubts with dignity, respect, factually, calmly. He stated his concern for going to war for the wrong reasons and, more importantly, for the lack of engagement of the US Senate itself in the act of allowing the president to bring forth a war upon our American people, wanted or not, without questioning, without consideration in the public sphere which was, he believed, to be its most important duty. He pointed out the failure of the Senate to itself. And his colleagues on both sides of the isle still respected him for it afterwards.
The debate Byrd chastised the Senate for not having finally occurred about one month later – almost too late. In his second anti-war speech Byrd took the podium on March 19, 2003. Byrd waited for order. He requested order. He waited again. Then he began. He proceeded to lay out his case against the war methodically. Once more without making the issue personal nor partisan. Without praising one party over the other. Without a hint of self-righteousness so prevalent in today’s divisive Senate speeches. It was a well-mannered rebuttal of readily accepted miscalculations.
He was right, of course, in both speeches. History has proven his reasoned approach to have been the path we should have chosen. But being right wasn’t the point today. This nation didn’t honor Robert Byrd today because he was right any more than it would dishonor him today because he was once a fierce segregationist.
This nation honored him today – or should have honored him today – because he was the last of his kind. He was the final bastion of a by-gone era when our political process was about policy and not popularity, when it was about following the constitution rather trying to reshape or reinterpret it, and when leaders did not necessarily follow the whims of the pollsters. They led.
They buried him today, only the second Senator to lie in repose in the Senate chambers during my lifetime. The last Statesman of American politics. It is all “Hollywood” now.
Late Note: As of this post, the link to Byrd's February 2003 speech has received less than 300 views. The March speech has about 39,000 views. But, his catchy use of the term "white nigger" during a television interview has been seen over 1.1 million times. This overwhelming preference of the youtube viewership substantiates the American public's fascination with the catchy sound bite over substantive discourse. We get what we want as a people. And what we want is to hear our would-be statesmen make sensational quips rather than listen to the very reasoning they might offer on occasion for the construction or deconstruction of public policy. Not a strong sign of a vital democracy.