If anything good has come from the loss of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who died yesterday at the age of 92, it’s another milestone in the changing of America’s political face.
As you no doubt know, there had never been a black president before Barack Obama. As you may not have known, however, for more than 200 years since 1789, not only was every American president a white man, so was every single vice president, speaker of the house, and president pro tempore of the Senate, the three positions closest to the Oval Office in the presidential line of succession. In other words, even if all of our white presidents had passed, one after the other, in some terrible series of accidents, their replacement—and the replacement’s replacement—would have continued not reflecting the U.S.’s remarkable diversity.
That ended a little when Nancy Pelosi assumed office as Speaker of the House in 2007. It ended a little more when Obama was inaugurated. And it ended a little more again yesterday, when Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii replaced Byrd as the Senate’s president pro tempore. A Japanese American World War II hero, Inouye, who’s been in office since 1963, is the first minority to serve as pro tem, a mostly ceremonial role filled by the senior member of the majority party.
Bolstering their records is that neither Nancy Pelosi nor Dan Inouye was appointed to their political standing by Barack Obama. Though the current president did indeed fill up his administration with more minorities than ever before, save for Joe Biden, both people closest to the presidency ran for election on their own merits, and won, several times over. What’s more, neither seems to have any interest in going away anytime soon (for his part, in fact, Inouye has said he’ll run for a ninth term this year, though he’ll be practically uncontested).
Anymore, it's easy to dismiss our government as ineffectual and absurd, mostly because it often is both of those things. But it’s also important to remember that, slowly—painfully slowly—things change.