He Cared About the Constitution

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A man of the Senate. I am sure that Robert Byrd, who died last night, would want people to remember that about him. And amidst all the remembrances of his life--from his many fans and his many critics--it’s important to remember what the word “Senator” meant to Byrd.

Byrd was a throwback: A throwback to the Constitution. To him, it mattered a lot that the powers of Congress are listed first in the Constitution, in Article One, while the powers of the president are listed second, in Article Two. For Byrd, that ordering of power was sacred and permanent--as sacred and permanent as the Constitution itself. And with that reverence came an understanding that concentrated power, clustered in the presidency, is always a danger.

Many Republicans find it easy to oppose imperial presidencies--when a Democrat is in the White House. And many Democrats find it easy to oppose secretive presidents--when a Republican is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Byrd was different. He was a senator, resolutely protective of his institution and against all opponents, especially presidents, in either party. And so he would lecture, on C-SPAN and elsewhere, on the history of senates, going back to the Roman Republic. No doubt many of his listeners were rolling their eyes as he talked about, say, the ancient Roman Helvidius Priscus, who fought imperial power in the first century, but Byrd knew what we all should know--if you don’t understand history, you won’t just repeat it, you will repeat the worst parts of it.

In his own way, Glenn Beck is doing the exact same thing today; he is reminding Americans of their own history. There’s power in that, and greatness. Both Byrd and Beck have been willing to do some of the hard work of freedom, which includes knowing where your freedom comes from and how it can exist only within the framework of a Constitutional Republic.

In the course of his six decades in Congress, Robert Byrd rose to the pinnacle of Senatorial power--as Senate majority leader in the 70s and 80s. But his real home was in the Appropriations Committee, from which he procured pork-barrel spending for his beloved West Virginia. And if you didn’t like it--he didn’t care. As a Senator he had the power of the purse. It was in the Constitution.

And so in the course of his 92 years on this earth, Robert Byrd did something to offend just about everyone. He even joined, briefly, the Ku Klux Klan. But the voters of West Virginia, including black West Virginians, forgave him.

And as for the rest of us, if we treasure the separation of powers, if we fear over-centralization in the executive, if we think that procedure is what protects freedom--then we should celebrate his life and honor his memory.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. He is the editor/founder of  the Serious Medicine Strategy blog.

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