If I had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, I would have been so ashamed of myself I would have spent the rest of my life cleaning out toilets for Third World orphanages or some such. But then I can't imagine having joined anything as wretched as the Klan, so maybe I would have ended up a self-righteous bloviator in the US Sentate. Virtually my entire adult life Robert Byrd has been in the US Senate and virtually every time I hear him speak my skin crawls, thinking of what he did. When I hear the press praise him as a great statesman, I want to throw up. Some things are just unforgiveable to me, like being a Klansman or a Concentration Camp Guard.--Roger L. Simon
Granted, the KKK is pretty icky, and it is certainly a black mark on his biography that the senator joined the organization in the '40's, and an even blacker mark that he remained a vociferous opponent of civil rights (and an adversary of Martin Luther King) well into the 1960's. He will clearly have to answer to his Maker for those transgressions. But, please...comparing him with Ivan of Treblinka is just a bit hysterical, don't you think?
If everyone was forever judged by the political miscalculations they made in their youth, we would have a polity made up entirely of the boring and predictable, all alums of the College Democrats and the Young Republicans. To give just a couple of examples, Hugo Black was a member of the KKK before he became one of the most passionate supporters of civil rights on the Supreme Court. Harry Truman tried to join the Klan, but ultimately backed out when the group's anti-Catholicism proved too uncomfortable for a would-be machine politician from Kansas City. The neoconservative movement was largely founded by people who had belonged to one branch or another of the Communist Party in the late-30's. Numerous political figures today belonged to some offshoot or another of the SDS or SNCC in the late-60's, groups that ultimately evolved into terrorist organizations. Even more to Simon's point, Martin Niemoller and Claus von Stauffenberg were, at one time, members in good standing of the German National Socialist Party. People change.
The point isn't that we should forget the actions Senator Byrd took in the 1940's, it is that he should be judged the same way we would insist that we be judged: by his mature political conduct. So long as there isn't any evidence that Byrd took part in a lynching, or ever burned a cross in anger, he shouldn't be defined by what he did sixty years ago.