One of Robert Byrd’s last notable acts in a career that spanned longer than any other in Congress was his decision to endorse then Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.
The West Virginia Democrat was already in bad health though it would be a full two years before he would pass away. Ostensibly, there was little to gain from offering his political support to either candidate. His state’s primary had already taken place four days prior and the result had been an overwhelming victory for Hillary Clinton.
But Byrd’s endorsement was imbued with a powerful symbolism that transcended electoral math. He was once in the Klu Klux Klan (and not in an insignificant capacity). He helped filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was publicly embarrassed, as recently as 2001, for using the term“White N—er” during an interview with Fox News.
For all of this, he spent much of his life expressing contrition. Appropriating money for memorials to civil rights icons was a start. But backing the first black presidential candidate with a legitimate chance at victory was a far more profound act.
The two created an anachronistic pairing. But Obama’s aides understood how a Byrd endorsement could help complete the moral arc of his candidacy as well as the senator’s career. And they worked hard to ensure that voters understood its importance as well.