Rod Dreher

I haven’t thought much about the passing of Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The only things I knew about him were a) that he was the undisputed master of pork-barrel legislating, b) that he was once a Klansman (though a repentant one, but some conservatives ungenerously overlooked his repentance), and c) that he took a lonely, brave but ultimately vindicated stance against the Iraq War. But that’s it.
Yet I learned something important from the obit in today’s Times. Excerpt:

Mr. Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. on Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C. His mother died of influenza the next year, but before she did, she asked his father to give him to a sister and brother-in-law. They adopted him and renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd, then moved to West Virginia.
As a boy, living on a small farm, he helped slaughter hogs, learned to play the fiddle and became a prize-winning Sunday school student after the manager of the local coal company store gave him two pairs of socks so that he could attend without embarrassment.
In 1937, Mr. Byrd married Erma Ora James, his high school sweetheart. She died in 2006, after 68 years of marriage. Mr. Byrd is survived by their two daughters, Mona Fatemi of McLean and Marjorie Moore of Leesburg, Va.; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
During World War II, Mr. Byrd worked as a welder building cargo ships in Baltimore and Tampa, Fla. When the war ended, in 1945, he returned to Crab Orchard, W.Va., to work in a supermarket. He taught Sunday school and an adult Bible class.

This was news to me. For some reason — probably his fondness for classical oratory — I thought he had grown up as a patrician. Turns out he never went to college as an undergrad either, but was largely self-educated. He earned a law degree in Washington by going to night school while serving in Congress, graduating cum laude from American University in 1963.
Learning that Byrd had grown up a poor country boy, and had worked as a welder and in a supermarket, made me think a bit differently about his pork-bringing back to his poor state. Understand, I’m not saying it was right, or always right. But I couldn’t help thinking of my own parents, who grew up poor in a state regarded as backwards. I think about my mother, at age six, walking alone past the sawmill in Woodville, Miss., to school, one winter without a coat because they were too poor to afford one. I think about my father being the first in his family to go to college, and doing so thanks to the GI Bill. I am the first generation in my family not to have known poverty. We have never been well off, but even in my ordinary middle-classness, I grew up far wealthier than anything my mom and dad knew as children.
As I wrote the other day, memories of childhood poverty particularly marked my mother, who has always had a heart for the poor, especially poor children, because she remembers acutely the shame of growing up like that, with no winter coat, no nothing. When I was out of town down South, I saw a child who had a cosmetic disfiguration of the sort you don’t often see anymore. I could tell by the way he was dressed that he was probably poor, or at least working-class. It took me aback, thinking about how the particulars of the boy’s condition was likely to be an automatic class marker, one that, however unfairly, would affect that kid’s prospects in life. One reason you don’t see things like that anymore is because most states offer child health insurance, so that even poor parents can get basic care for their kids.
We have these things in large part because people like Robert C. Byrd got into government, and remembered where they came from. Look, I’m not saying that either Byrd or people like him were perfect. The poor and the working class can be every bit as scoundrelous as the middle class and the rich. Some of the worst people in public life present themselves as advocates for the poor, but really just exploit them. That said, given how middle-class America has become, I think it’s worth observing, as men and women like Byrd pass from the scene, that their experiences growing up with poverty and struggle shaped their political consciousness, which in turn made the world we live in today.
My father went to college, which vaulted his family into the middle class, thanks to both the GI Bill and the expansion of a state land-grant university. That was the government, and the doing of people like Huey P. Long, FDR, and yes, Robert C. Byrd. My people were poor rural whites with no power and few prospects. Government action provide them with opportunities that they never had before. It’s easy to look back now, from the year 2010, from our comfortable middle-class present, and see what went wrong with the implementation of the American welfare state (such as it is). But it is harder for the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and those still younger, to grasp the reality of poverty, hardship and limited aspirations that conditioned the lives of so many millions of Americans prior to FDR and his expansion of government. It takes something like the death of a figure like Byrd to bring it to mind again.
In the world Sen. Byrd, and my mother and father, were born into, it was common to see children disfigured like the boy I saw down South the other day. Being poor meant you had to live with it. Being poor meant you sometimes had no coat for the winter, or that you ate stale cornbread and buttermilk in an iced tea glass, and that was your dinner, because you had no money. There is still poverty in America, God knows, and the expansion of government has created its own set of problems, which will have to be dealt with now that the US is apparently going into an era of enforced austerity.
Still, there are fewer children in this country going without coats in the winter, and without basic medical care, than there once was, and that’s a good thing. And that’s in part because of men like Robert C. Byrd. Some of what he stood for I stand against, and I don’t know that I ever would have voted for him had I been a West Virginian (on the other hand, I don’t know that I wouldn’t have, either). Still, I wish we had more people like him in Congress, by which I mean more people, both Republicans and Democrats, who grew up hard, and who come from farms, from factories, from the front lines of the wars, and who didn’t come up in material ease. It’s important too for people like me, well established in the middle class, to keep in mind people like Byrd. Most Americans, I think, are only one or two generations out of the kind of hardscrabble life that Byrd had. That nasty line I think I first heard from Anne Richards, about George H.W. Bush — “he was born on third base, and thinks he hit a triple” — could well apply to me and a lot of you readers, too. We may have been born on second base, or even first base, but we only got there because people like Sen. Byrd opened doors for our forebears.

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