As the dirt settles on Robert Byrd's grave, let us reflect on the wisdom of a former U.S. president offering a post-mortem alibi for the man who began his public service as the Exalted Cyclops of the murderous Ku Klux Klan.
''They mention that he once had a fleeting association with the Ku Klux Klan, and what does that mean?'' Clinton said at Byrd's funeral on July 2. ''I'll tell you what it means. He was a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia. He was trying to get elected. And maybe he did something he shouldn't have done, and he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that's what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There certainly are no perfect politicians.''
Byrd was hardly just "trying to get elected.'' First off, he recruited dozens of terrorists for the Klan over a rather lengthy span in his 20s and into his 30s. Furthermore, one did not attain the key ranks of Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops in this lynching bee with a mere ''fleeting association.''
Notwithstanding the racism of Byrd's era, Clinton is quite inaccurate in suggesting here that getting elected required a hooded apprenticeship in a cow pasture under a bedtick. Sympathizing with the Klan may well have been de rigueur for Southern politicians on the make; however, few actually took up shotgun and fagot with the zealotry of Robert Byrd, who recruited some 150 friends and associates into his klavern in the early '40s.
Was this wrong? Bill Clinton is not quite sure. ''And maybe he did something wrong,'' the former president hedged during his eulogy. It depends, I suppose, on what your definition of ''kill the niggers'' is. Yes, Bill Clinton, we're talking murderous provocation here.
So common was the abduction and terrorist killing of black men during the '40s that it was not until Jan. 2, 1954, that the Washington Post could editorialize that for the first time, the nation had gone two years without a reported lynching in the New South. Taking this downturn as an apparent affront, Mississippi racists lynched Emmett Till the very next year, followed by an epidemic of Klan murders throughout the South in the wake of the Brown v. Board decision and the civil rights movement that it inspired.
Where, Mr. Clinton, was your ex-Klansman Byrd in all this? The West Virginian politician opposed President Harry Truman's desegregation of the U.S. Army, having written a 1944 letter to arch-racist Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, declaring: ''I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side … Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.''
Flame-throwing such racial vitriol for nigh on a half century, Sen. Byrd opposed every attempt to evolve the United States into a non-racial democracy — including the mid-1960s civil and voting rights acts. He staged a 14-hour, 13-minute personal filibuster of the act when it came before the Senate in 1964.
Alas, it was this empowerment of black voters in West Virginia, as in Alabama with George Wallace and other Dixiecrat states, that likely moved Byrd to tone down his racist activity in public. His conversion, so-called, was not due to altruism and certainly not to Christianity, since he was a churchgoing Exalted Cyclops during his hellbent days of controlling Negroes with extreme prejudice.
Would the Klan have been an albatross to Byrd had Negroes not won the vote? Probably not. Otherwise, according to Clinton, he would not have joined the terrorists in the first place. This flexibility of ethics and morals is precisely what troubles decent people about former President Bill Clinton. His values, such as they are, always seem to come down to a quibble. Did he evade the draft? Smoke pot? Have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky? And in the present case, wasn't Byrd indeed a committed white Southerner of his time whose life's work, as that of, say, George Wallace, was for the most part a racist attack upon the best interests of African Americans?
By granting Sen. Byrd a pass, Clinton, I submit, accommodates the senator's peculiar race behavior extending decades beyond his days as Exalted Cyclops. Instead of excusing the West Virginian, the understanding Arkansan should have called him out — a step Clinton is disinclined to take.
Similarly, during a '95 White House interview, I asked President Clinton if he would name a single white racist other than David Duke and Mark Fuhrman. The politician who made his reputation opposing racism and its practitioners refused to cite a single offender individually. White Americans freely admit that racists still exist, but no one appears to know any personally.
A clear accounting of Clinton on this matter is important here because he once enjoyed unqualified black support but let it slip away on the '08 campaign trail, chiefly because of what Murray Kempton might have called his Machiavelomaniacal self-centeredness. It is not so much that Clinton lies; we all do. It is rather that he shifts about on tectonic plates of dishonor.
Even when caught red-handed, he admits to no foul deed, no matter who else gets hurt. The issue seems always to depend upon what your definition of ''is'' is. Self-righteousness and a seeming immunity to shame are hallmarks of the Clintonian style that have seen him through the good times and the bad.
While being ''too smart to admit anything'' made Clinton a winner with voters, Kempton once condemned him as a sinner with ''God frequently on [his] lips and a habitual tolerance for the seven deadly sins contending for attention within … LBJ was haunted by his sins, Clinton has absolutely no sense of guilt.''
So now Bishop Clinton, world without end, has granted the dearly departed senator an Indulgence, absolving Byrd of violent sins committed against a people left out of this saintly bestowal of grace.
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former editor of New York Newsday.