One of Robert Byrd's last notable acts in a career that spanned longer than any other in Congress was his decision to endorse then Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.
The West Virginia Democrat was already in bad health though it would be a full two years before he would pass away. Ostensibly, there was little to gain from offering his political support to either candidate. His state's primary had already taken place four days prior and the result had been an overwhelming victory for Hillary Clinton.
But Byrd's endorsement was imbued with a powerful symbolism that transcended electoral math. He was once in the Klu Klux Klan (and not in an insignificant capacity). He helped filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was publicly embarrassed, as recently as 2001, for using the term "White N---er" during an interview with Fox News.
For all of this, he spent much of his life expressing contrition. Appropriating money for memorials to civil rights icons was a start. But backing the first black presidential candidate with a legitimate chance at victory was a far more profound act.
The two created an anachronistic pairing. But Obama's aides understood how a Byrd endorsement could help complete the moral arc of his candidacy as well as the senator's career. And they worked hard to ensure that voters understood its importance as well.
Watch some of Byrd's most notable moments:
"We were going through a rough patch and his endorsement -- and the strength of it -- helped stabilize the political situation of the moment, creating a strong permission structure for others to commit to us at a crucial time," recalled David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager.
"Senator Byrd's endorsement carried a degree of moral credibility as well as political credibility that was powerful," said Anita Dunn, Obama's communications director and a former Byrd aide herself. " Byrd's moral stature within the Democratic Party following the Iraq war resolution was extraordinary. His political credibility -- as a former leader coming from a state where the endorsement could only hurt him and as a 'wise elder' of the party -- was substantial. And of course the symbolism of RCB casting his lot with a message about hope and unity seemed to parallel the journey the nation had taken to get to that moment."
Below the surface there was some skepticism among staff members about the idea of Obama hitching a reformed KKK member to his campaign's bandwagon. But the president was, above all, a politician. And as one former campaign aide noted, at the time Obama was "being painted as someone who couldn't win white votes and wasn't born in this country." Byrd eased those concerns.
What is left relatively unknown is the personal relationship the two shared -- if they shared one at all. Obama never campaigned with Byrd. He was in poor health, hardly fit to hit the trail. And with West Virginia a non-starter on the general election landscape, there was no focus on the state. The two did overlap in the United States Senate. But they held diametrically differing views of the body. Byrd was an institutionalist, who seemed to revel in the lethargic nature of congressional process (he fought a line-item veto, denounced presidential war powers, and ridiculed the notion of White House czars).
Obama was of a different generation. He viewed the institution as too antiquated for the modern demands of governance, understanding that if he wanted to truly affect legislation a trip down Pennsylvania Avenue was in order.
That said, Obama was well aware of how compelling it was to work alongside someone who, just a few decades earlier, had vigorously fought the very notion that an African-American should share the same rights as his white colleagues. In his book "Audacity of Hope", he wrote -- with wonder more than reverence -- of his first meeting with Byrd:
Listening to Senator Byrd I felt with full force all the essential contradictions of me in this new place, with its marble busts, its arcane traditions, its memories and its ghosts. I pondered the fact that, according to his own autobiography, Senator Byrd had received his first taste of leadership in his early twenties, as a member of the Raleigh County Ku Klux Klan, an association that he had long disavowed, an error he attributed -- no doubt correctly -- to the time and place in which he'd been raised, but which continued to surface as an issue throughout his career. I thought about how he had joined other giants of the Senate, like J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Richard Russell of Georgia, in Southern resistance to civil rights legislation. I wondered if this would matter to the liberals who now lionized Senator Byrd for his principled opposition to the Iraq War resolution -- the MoveOn.org crowd, the heirs of the political counterculture the senator had spent much of his career disdaining.
I wondered if it should matter. Senator Byrd's life -- like most of ours -- has been the struggle of warring impulses, a twining of darkness and light. And in that sense I realized that he really was a proper emblem for the Senate, whose rules and design reflect the grand compromise of America's founding: the bargain between Northern states and Southern states, the Senate's role as a guardian against the passions of the moment, a defender of minority rights and state sovereignty, but also a tool to protect the wealthy from the rabble, and assure slaveholders of noninterference with their peculiar institution. Stamped into the very fiber of the Senate, within its genetic code, was the same contest between power and principle that characterized America as a whole, a lasting expression of that great debate among a few brilliant, flawed men that had concluded with the creation of a form of government unique in its genius--yet blind to the whip and the chain.