Manchin, Byrd and the Arc of Justice

By Jamie Stiehm

June 9, 2021 5 min read

WASHINGTON — Much depends upon Sen. Joe Manchin III, the man stuck in the middle of a deeply divided 50-50 Senate. The West Virginia Democrat opposes the Voting Rights Act; he's the only one in his caucus to break ranks.

Manchin faces a major arc of color bending toward justice. Tell him, please, this is one of those rare times history rhymes.

If he bends on the issue, the centrist Manchin has a chance to redeem the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd's, D-W.Va., greatest regret. Byrd filibustered the famed Civil Rights Act of 1964, to his everlasting shame.

As governor, Manchin won Byrd's Senate seat in 2010 and viewed him as an inspiration.

Yet, the powerful West Virginia senator is fixing to defy a new president of his own party. Making bold plans, Joe Biden backs the voting rights legislation.

Manchin could clear a crucial debt for Byrd: a legend who vastly raised West Virginia's fortunes. Also a scholar on the Senate, Byrd carried a small Constitution in his shirt pocket, clear on checks and balances.

Manchin changing his mind could not be more apt or urgent now at this embattled moment.

As Republican statehouses openly seek to suppress voter turnout — hello, Texas — the For the People Act federalizes elections to make American democracy more free, fair and uniform.

No senator grew wings more than Byrd to become one of the greats. He filibustered the Civil Rights Act, holding the floor for 14 hours. As a young Southern man, he belonged to the Klan.

Yes.

Byrd apologized for that past and denounced it many times. He told me it would be in his obituary. He was, when he died in 2010 at 92, an outspoken critic of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the longest-serving member of Congress, he counted the late John Lewis, D-GA., as a friend.

Manchin is a strong politician. Tall and genial, he's respected by the other 49 in his caucus when they're not tearing their hair out.

What's more, Democrats need Manchin to join in breaking the 60-vote threshold for every policy bill. Experts say the filibuster rule has been so abused, mostly by Republicans, that Democrats should get rid of it.

If so, a 50-50 tie goes to the White House.

If not, the Biden presidency may founder on the shoals of the filibuster and a single stubborn senator.

Amid the Italianate frescoes, statues and marble halls, Byrd's ghost still looms large. As a reporter for The Hill, I interviewed him in his office, overlooking a Capitol terrace, on the Roman Senate.

Byrd made some vivid speeches he turned into essays on the Roman Republic: a foundation for American lawmakers. The senator quoted Shakespeare on the floor and played the fiddle as he campaigned in the craggy mountains of West Virginia.

"Daughter of the Rebellion" is the nickname of West Virginia, he told me, because it broke apart from Virginia during the Civil War — to stay in the Union. As a history lover, I soaked up the insights he shared.

One that never left my mind was a word on the Founding Fathers. Byrd called their meeting of minds "providential."

In a series of talks, Byrd told me his mother died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. He was raised by his aunt and uncle in a coal mining town. There was no money for college.

When it came time to vote Clarence Thomas up or down for the Supreme Court, Byrd was the only senator to stand up and say he believed Anita Hill's account of sexual misconduct.

The aging Byrd wept on the floor at news that Senator Ted Kennedy died in 2009. Dear friends in the end, Byrd had defeated rival Kennedy for Democratic leader in times past.

One day, I left the senator bright zinnias and cosmos.

"Jamie, it is so kind of you to think of me with the lovely flowers from your garden," Byrd thanked me.

When I left for the Baltimore Sun, Byrd gave me a Senate history volume he authored. He wrote in a courtly hand, "with highest personal esteem and respect."

Just like Byrd, Manchin can change to be on the right side of history.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.

Photo credit: 12019 at Pixabay

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