Robert Byrd Supports Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Robert Byrd Alex Wong / Getty Images

One of the longest serving members in Congressional history, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has thrown his support behind the effort to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which is expected to come to crucial votes in both the House and Senate shortly. 

He is an unlikely civil rights advocate, and gay rights advocates are both surprised—and excited—by his support. Now the oldest member of Congress, Byrd began his career in the early 1940s by recruiting friends to form a Ku Klux Klan chapter, a stain on his political reputation he’s never been able to erase. "It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life, career, and reputation," he wrote in his memoir "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields."

"My only explanation for the entire episode is that I was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision -- a jejune and immature outlook -- seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions," wrote Byrd.

Gay rights advocates were moved by his support. “For someone like Robert Byrd to vote for the repeal of something like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell--that’s pretty amazing, and that shows the support this issue has,” says Fred Sainz of The Human Rights Campaign.

Byrd’s support was not unconditional. He threw his weight behind the effort only after adding language to the repeal effort that would add a 60-day delay to implementation after certification of a military review by President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen. 

"This period of time will allow the Congress, along with the American people, to thoroughly review the proposed policy recommendations to ensure that these changes are consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention for our Armed Forces,” wrote Byrd in a statement released Wednesday night.

Byrd appears to have public opinion on his side. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released this week had 78 percent of the public in support of allowing openly gay people to serve in the military, with one in five opposed.