The top Senate Democrat yesterday defended a colleague’s assertion that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a former Klansman, would have been a great leader during the Civil War.
Sen. Tom Daschle said there was “no parallel” between Sen. Christopher J. Dodd’s praise of Mr. Byrd and Republican Sen. Trent Lott’s praise of former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
“I do not think it is an exaggeration at all to say to my friend from West Virginia that he would have been a great senator at any moment,” Mr. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said while praising Mr. Byrd last week on the occasion of the eight-term Democrat’s 17,000th Senate vote.
Mr. Dodd continued: “He would have been right at the founding of this country. He would have been in the leadership crafting this Constitution. He would have been right during the great conflict of Civil War in this nation.”
Mr. Byrd has admitted he joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1942. In a 1946 letter to a national Klan leader, Mr. Byrd wrote that he had held the rank of “kleagle” in the KKK. In the Senate in June 1964, Mr. Byrd made a 14-hour filibuster speech in an unsuccessful effort to block passage of the Civil Rights Act.
In December 2002, Mr. Lott was forced to resign as Senate majority leader because of his praise for Mr. Thurmond. At the South Carolinian’s 100th birthday celebration, Mr. Lott noted that his home state of Mississippi had voted for Mr. Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential candidacy, adding that he would have made a great president and the rest of the nation should have followed Mississippi.
But Mr. Daschle of South Dakota said Mr. Dodd’s speech was not comparable to the remarks that cost Mr. Lott his leadership post.
“I wasn’t on the floor when Senator Dodd made his comments,” Mr. Daschle told reporters yesterday. “I don’t know what he said. But I would think even he would tell you there’s no parallel.”
Several Republican senators were asked for comment on Mr. Dodd’s remarks but none replied.
One Republican Senate aide expressed shock at Mr. Dodd’s remarks.
“The last time I looked the Civil War was about ending slavery, and when is it a good time for a former Ku Klux Klan member to be a leader during such difficult times?” said Robert Traynham, who emphasized he was speaking personally, and not for his boss, Republican Senate Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. “Where is the outrage from those very same individuals and organizations that express their outrage when Republicans make statements that they interpret to be discriminatory?”
Mr. Dodd was among the Democrats who called for Mr. Lott to lose his leadership post and said his party would deal with such comments differently.
“If Tom Daschle or another Democratic leader were to have made similar statements, the reaction would have been very swift,” he said on CNN’s “Late Edition” on Dec. 15, 2002. “I don’t think several hours would have gone by without there being an almost unanimous call for the leader to step aside.”
Former Thurmond aide Armstrong Williams said that Mr. Dodd’s April 1 speech “is far worse than what Trent Lott said.”
“If Byrd had been a leader during the Civil War, he would have been fighting for the preservation of slavery,” said Mr. Williams. “Thurmond was never a member of the Klan and he defended blacks against the poll tax and lynching. If Byrd and Thurmond were alive during the Civil War and Byrd had his way, Thurmond would have been lynched.”