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Sen. Robert Byrd, one-time KKK member, backs Barack Obama

May 19, 2008 |  6:02 pm

Sen. Robert Byrd's endorsement today of Barack Obama was both oddly timed and illustrative of the state of the Democratic presidential race. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia once was a member of the Ku Klux Klan but he long ago quit and apologized and he has endorsed Democratic presidnetial candidate Barack Obama

Obama picked up the backing six days after he got flattened in the primary in Byrd's home state of West Virginia. Obama can be excused for thinking, "Thanks, but where were you a week ago?"

That said, a nod from Byrd -- who in 2006 passed the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as the longest-serving senator in U.S. history -- likely would have made only a negligible difference in the West Virginia vote (perhaps turning Obama's 41-percentage-point loss to Hillary Clinton into a 39-point one).

As venerable as the 90-year-old Byrd may be in the Mountain State, senatorial support generally offers presidential candidates little more than window dressing. These lawmakers rarely command a significant on-the-ground political apparatus, as distinct from some governors (whose endorsements, because of that, can carry clout). Obama, after all, was embraced by West Virginia's other senator, Jay Rockefeller, which obviously cut little ice.

Still, it is telling that Byrd would join the Obama camp after the candidate's West Virginia massacre -- and amid the probability that a presidential ticket ...

... Obama heads will not seriously compete for the state's five electoral votes.

Byrd, as an outspoken foe of the Iraq war from the start, was attracted by Obama's similar credential, as he mentions in his endorsement statement. But Byrd, having passed on active involvement in his state's primary, could have remained neutral; the fact that he chose not to is more evidence that, in the view of most Democratic bigwigs, Clinton's nomination hopes range from slim to none.

More than all this, though, Byrd's decision to stand with Obama deserves notice as a sign of one man's evolution.

As is noted in virtually every lengthy story about Byrd, as a young man he joined the Ku Klux Klan. There has been an ongoing dispute about the length of his membership and his commitment to the Klan's racist cause -- Byrd over the years has minimized his involvement; others have said that in doing so he ignores the facts.

The issue was examined by the Washington Post in a 2005 article headlined "A Senator's Shame."

What has not been in dispute is Byrd's mea culpas. The Post piece ended with this quote from him:

"I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times ... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."

-- Don Frederick

(UPDATE: Comic Jay Leno, during the monologue for his late night show Monday, broached the Byrd endorsement. "That's got to make Hillary feel good, huh? Even the Klan guy is going, 'I’m going with the black guy.'")

Photo credit: Getty Images

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