Democrats and Double Standards in the NYT: 'Respected Voice' Robert Byrd vs. 'Foe of Integration' Strom Thurmond

The New York Times marked the death early Monday morning of veteran Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who served a record 51 years in the U.S. Senate, with an online obituary by former Times reporter Adam Clymer. While acknowledging Byrd's Klan past and his pork-barrel prodigiousness, Clymer's lead also emphasized Byrd's proud fight as the keeper of Congressional prerogatives. The headline was hagiographic: "Robert Byrd, Respected Voice of the Senate, Dies at 92."

While Clymer's opening statement on Byrd wasn't exactly laudatory, it did not match the paper's hostile treatment of the passing of two veteran Republican senators accused of racial prejudice: Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Clymer's lead paragraph:

Robert C. Byrd, who used his record tenure as a United States senator to fight for the primacy of the legislative branch of government and to build a modern West Virginia with vast amounts of federal money, died at about 3 a.m. Monday, his office said. He was 92.

The bulk of Clymer's obituary for Byrd may have been written some time ago, as is customary. Clymer retired from the Times in 2003, after a career of bashing President Bush and prominent conservatives, while defending old-guard Democrats like Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Clymer acknowledged what he called Byrd's changing perspective, moving from conservative to liberal over the years, and in the 16th paragraph brought up Byrd's membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and his filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Mr. Byrd's perspective on the world changed over the years. He filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and supported the Vietnam War only to come to back civil rights measures and criticize the Iraq war. Rating his voting record in 1964, Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal lobbying group, found that his views and the organization's were aligned only 16 percent of the time. In 2005, he got an A.D.A. rating of 95.

Mr. Byrd's political life could be traced to his early involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, an association that almost thwarted his career and clouded it intermittently for years afterward.


Mr. Byrd insisted that his klavern had never conducted white-supremacist marches or engaged in racial violence. He said in his autobiography that he had joined the Klan because he shared its anti-Communist creed and wanted to be associated with the leading people in his part of West Virginia. He conceded, however, that he also "reflected the fears and prejudices" of the time.

After noting criticism from watchdog groups over Byrd's reputation as the "king of pork," Clymer followed up:

West Virginians were grateful for the help. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia and the state's junior senator since 1985, said Mr. Byrd had meant "everything, everything" to the state. Mr. Byrd knew, he said, that "before you can make life better, you have to have a road to get in there, and you have to have a sewerage system and all those things, and he has done that for most of the state."

Bob Wise, a Democrat who was West Virginia's governor from 2001 to 2005, once said that what Mr. Byrd had done for education - "the emphasis on reading and literacy" - mattered even more than roads.

And Clymer's dubious observation that Byrd "was never a particularly partisan Democrat" would surprise many familiar with Byrd's non-stop excoriation of Bush over the Iraq War. As Clymer noted, Byrd authored a 2004 book titled "Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency."

He was never a particularly partisan Democrat. President Richard M. Nixon briefly considered him for a Supreme Court appointment. Mr. Dole recalled an occasion when Mr. Byrd gave him advice on a difficult parliamentary question; the help enabled Mr. Dole to overcome Mr. Byrd on a particular bill.

In contrast is the Times's treatment of veteran Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who died on Independence Day 2008: "Jesse Helms, Unyielding Beacon of Conservatism, Is Dead at 86." Steven Holmes' obituary for Helms began:

Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator whose courtly manner and mossy drawl barely masked a hard-edged conservatism that opposed civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art, died early Friday. He was 86.

Clymer's Byrd obituary didn't mention that Byrd, like Helms, voted on a measure to bar the National Endowment for the Arts of funding "obscene" or "indecent" work.

Clymer also wrote the obituary for centennial Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, who died on June 26, 2003. Like Byrd, Thurmond was a former segregationist (he made his mark as the States' Rights candidate in 1948 and became a Republican in 1964) who later reconciled with blacks and became proficient in earning pork for his state. The Times' headline the following day left no room for doubt: "Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100," although Clymer's lead didn't mention race.

Clay Waters is director of Times Watch. You can follow him on Twitter.