It is customary to avoid speaking ill of the newly deceased, so perhaps the less admirable elements of the life and career of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd are better left to be examined at a later date. The West Virginia Democrat died yesterday at age 92. Set aside, for now, his background as a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, his outrageous pork-barreling and his general liberal-blowhard tendencies. Instead, Americans today can respect Mr. Byrd's devotion to Senate traditions, even when they ran contrary to his own political desires.
In the 1997 book "Integrity," Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter related one of Mr. Byrd's finest moments. In 1986, a year before the nomination of Judge Robert Bork, President Reagan proposed former Indiana state Sen. Daniel Manion for a seat on the federal appeals bench. This sparked an intense confirmation battle in the Senate. On the day of the vote, several of Mr. Manion's supporters were away. As was the practice of the time, Democratic opponents agreed to "pair" with those supporters by withholding their own ballots, ensuring no alteration in the outcome from the absences. At the last minute, it appeared that Mr. Manion would be confirmed by one vote. Then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, reneged on his agreement to abstain and instead voted no.
Appalled by Mr. Biden's duplicity, Mr. Byrd temporarily changed his vote to cancel the effect of his colleague's switch - even though he opposed Mr. Manion's confirmation. Mr. Byrd eventually engineered a fair re-balloting which Mr. Manion won by a single vote. Mr. Byrd chose the honorable path instead of an easy political victory. He realized that the harm done to the institution, and to the republic, would be greater if the process were damaged than from the loss on any one particular issue of the day.
As big a spender as he was, Mr. Byrd also zealously guarded the eponymous "Byrd Rule," which attempted to apply a modicum of discipline to the budget. Though Americans rightly look askance at many other aspects of Mr. Byrd's long career, they nonetheless should acknowledge his reverence for the institution itself. R.I.P.
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