Opinion: Forget the statue. How Byrd came to power deserves Virginia’s attention.

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

BOSTON — U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd bit the dust on Wednesday — workers carted away his bronze state Capitol Square statue — and so it goes.

What of this momentous event? Byrd’s political machine ruled Virginia for decades in the last century.

Well, for one, it was less than fully momentous. Long ago — and really not much longer after the hulking, unflattering thing went up in 1976 — Byrd’s statue became an object of indifference.

There were no candlelight tributes at the Byrd statue. No flowers were strewn. No burnt offerings were made to his memory.

Because, in the end, nobody really gave a hoot about the statue. You simply walked past it.

The principal rational for taking down statues these days is that it can be done. That’s basically it. A light went off in some energetic heads and the words formed, “Oh, we can do this.”

So they did.

Forgive a digression, but there was a wonderful Twilight Zone episode where a couple of space travelers land on a far-flung planet and one of them discovers an entire civilization of tiny, little people.

Well, since he’s big, he figures he’s in charge, establishes himself as a newly arrived deity and orders the little people to build a statue to him. Which they do.

Only then (cue the irony) a couple of other space fellows appear, who are much, much bigger than the god-guy and inadvertently squish him. Oops.

Whereupon the tiny, tiny little people yank down his statue. Good riddance.

They go up and they go down and, in Virginia, we may have to start installing these bronze icons with zippers to accommodate shifting public opinion. There’s a lot of good riddance going on.

If there were strong feelings about Byrd, they existed mostly in his lifetime, when he was actively engaged in the leadership of Virginia and working on the things that inspired him.

Such as making sure that as few Virginians voted as possible.

Or making sure state government — or the federal government, too, for that matter — remained as restrained and unresponsive as possible.

Or ensuring that Virginia’s caste system remained intact as possible, especially when it came to public education or who rode where on the bus.

So, we read in last week’s news accounts that Sen. Byrd led Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to public school integration — an act of villainy, we are reminded, and who would argue with that?

What we don’t quite get is what his political career — meaning Byrd’s durability and success — says about democracy.

If you cross the street from this fabled old hotel — Boston’s Parker House — you walk into the tree-covered courtyard of Old City Hall and find etched references to James Michael Curley, a legendary political figure in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Head down the street toward the North End and you encounter a statue of Curley and people gathering to have their picture taken with him. His political career took him to the governor’s office, the mayor’s office, the U.S. House of Representatives and jail.

Curley was notorious and, in the opinion of his opponents, thoroughly corrupt.

Curley was also an authentic product of American democracy.

As was Virginia’s Harry Flood Byrd.

The condemnation part is easy; understanding how these people came to be and flourished politically — which takes knowing the context of their times — is the more difficult challenge.

Maybe Beantown is on to something.

A block from here, in the Boston Atheneum — one of the country’s oldest and most venerated independent libraries — there must be at least a half dozen representations of George Washington and a perfectly splendid bust of John Marshall, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Those two Virginians had some imperfections, too, and lately we’ve been hearing about that.

And what will that lead to? Hard to rule out much these days. There’s a relentless drumbeat to cut things loose.

You just wish this business would yield to a more thoughtful, less cartoonish public discussion of our history — you know, where we dive deeper on these topics and engage the details.

There were, after all, people who gave their political careers over — at great personal cost — to fighting the Byrd Machine. They came with the names of Plunkett and Hutchinson and Dalton and Miller.

Did you hear any of those names mentioned last week? Nope, not a one. It’s easier to do the statues.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting