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The Washington Post White-Washes Sen. Byrd's Past By: Byron York
The Hill | Wednesday, June 29, 2005


There was a striking passage in last Sunday’s Page One Washington Post story about Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, headlined, “A Senator’s Shame: Byrd, in His New Book, Again Confronts Early Ties to KKK.”

“Historians, political analysts and admirers have long sought to reconcile Byrd’s early Klan affiliation with his image as a pillar of the Senate,” reporter Eric Pianin wrote. “More extraordinary is how he managed to overcome such a blot on his record to twice become Senate majority leader.”

It’s true. Byrd has indeed enjoyed an image as a pillar of the Senate. And given his history, that seems a bit odd.

How do you suppose it happened? Do you think a newspaper — say The Washington Post — might have had something to do with it?

Sunday’s article, based in part on the senator’s new autobiography, details how in the early 1940s Byrd started a chapter of the Klan in Crab Orchard, WV, recruited members, appealed to the KKK’s national leadership and became the local “exalted cyclops.”

The story details how Byrd remained active in the Klan for longer than he has ever acknowledged and how, in 1945, he wrote a letter saying that he would rather die than see the United States “degraded by race mongrels.”

It was strong stuff. But surely nothing new, right? Surely the Post has covered that territory many times before, right? After all, Byrd has been in the Senate since 1959.

Well, actually, not. A review of the paper’s coverage of Byrd reveals that, on the whole, the Post has been extraordinarily reluctant to investigate — or even criticize — the Democratic leader’s Klan history.

According to a search of the Nexis database, since 1977, 32 stories in the Post used Byrd’s name and the words “Klan” or “KKK.”

Three of them were letters to the editor. One was a book review. A few were stories in which Byrd’s name and “Klan” or “KKK” appeared but were not related.

Two were articles about Louisiana Klansman David Duke, who proudly cited Byrd’s former membership in the organization. One was a profile of another Klan leader who also proudly claimed Byrd as one of his own.

One was a brief “Names and Faces” account of a routine by comedian Dennis Miller, in which it was noted that an audience booed when Miller said Byrd was “burning the cross at both ends.”

One was a brief item criticizing a Byrd political opponent who brought up Byrd’s Klan membership. Another was a news story mentioning the same incident.

One was a story from 1979 that described a speech by then-NAACP chief Benjamin Hooks decrying the Klan. The Post reported that Byrd was in attendance, but the paper did not mention — yes, did not mention — that Byrd once belonged to the Klan.

A number of other articles contained brief mentions of Byrd’s past, such as the story from 1977 that described Byrd as “a poor boy from the West Virginia coal towns who worked as a butcher, a welder in the Baltimore shipyards and once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.”

Another story, from 1993, described Byrd as a “former filling-station attendant, meat cutter, produce salesman and shipyard worker — once even a member of the Ku Klux Klan” who had become a “prince of the realm” in the Senate.

You get the idea. Over the years, the Post has often steered clear of Byrd’s history with the Klan.

There were very, very few exceptions, such as the story in 1981 in which reporter Martin Schram directly confronted Byrd over the issue and got an extremely chilly response. Much more common was the admiring Post profile of Byrd from 1999 — the paper was lauding Byrd’s opposition to the Clinton impeachment — which began this way:

“Sen. Robert Byrd is a believer in holy documents. They are the sacred tools for defending his Senate against the savages. The Bible is one such holy book. He learned to read with the King James Version and, seventy-some years later, has little use for any other Bible. Something about modern translations seems to sap the words of their sacred power. The U.S. Constitution is also holy writ. Watch him wield it ...”

Not until 2,532 words into a 2,779-word story did the Post say this:

“As a young man campaigning for the West Virginia legislature in the ‘40s, Byrd briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan, hoping to gain votes. He quickly quit and has spent the past half-century publicly regretting it.”

The Post didn’t even go on a crusade when, in March 2001, Byrd twice used the N-word on national television. The paper published just one story, when Byrd apologized.

And now, after all these years of mostly soft-pedaling Byrd’s past, the Post wonders how it is that Byrd has managed to be regarded as a pillar of the Senate.

How do you suppose that happened?



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