byrd.jpgYou might not be interested in reading any obits today on a really old senator who probably should have retired from Congress long ago.

But in this era of Twitter, Facebook and extreme self promotion, all of us, including every so-called social media and personal branding guru out there, might want to spend some time today reading about how Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress who died today at age 92, went from Ku Klux Klan member to liberal hero.

Byrd also voted against the Civil Rights Act, but he went on to become a champion of the rights of all Americans.

So many of you have asked me how to explain being fired from a job, or getting a hiring manager to see beyond a past public transgression, or criminal record. And parents are often wondering if something their kids say on Facebook will come back to haunt them when they go out in the real world.

All these things can make your career life harder, no question about it.

A newly released survey by OfficeTeam found that one in five job candidates gets dropped after references are checked.

But how did someone like Byrd overcome such a checkered past? Was he a shrewd image revamper or did he just not let his past keep him down?

A great window into Byrd is an obit about the man today written by Adam Clymer:

His opponents used his Klan membership against him during his first run for the House of Representatives in 1952; Democratic leaders urged him to drop out of the race. But he stayed in and won, then spent decades apologizing for what he called a “sad mistake.”

He went on to vote for civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, but when the more sweeping Civil Rights Act was before Congress in 1964, he filibustered for an entire night against it, saying the measure was an infringement on states’ rights. He backed civil rights legislation consistently only after becoming a party leader in the Senate.

In the Senate, he was the Democratic leader from 1977 to 1989, though at the same time something of a loner. He was not particularly well liked, and some senators feared him as a threat to their own spending projects. But he was deeply respected as a voice of the institution.

“His life is the Senate,” said Bob Dole, the former senator from Kansas and Republican leader. “He knows more about it than anyone living or dead. He doesn’t watch television. He doesn’t follow sports. He’s dedicated his life to the institution and his family.”

This story from the Washington Post will make your hair stand on end. He did more than join the KKK, he formed a group in his town.

Despite his many achievements, however, the venerated Byrd has never been able to fully erase the stain of his association with one of the most reviled hate groups in the nation’s history.

“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,” Byrd wrote in a new memoir — “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields” — that will be published tomorrow by West Virginia University Press.

Although it may have haunted him, some how his past did not doom his career.

Interestingly enough, when asked about his racist past, he told an NPR reporter that young kids should think twice before they join any groups.

When asked how he felt about belonging to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, he replied, “Terrible.”

“How many more times am I going to have to say it? I’ve said it hundreds of times. I don’t mind saying it again. It was terrible, it was a mistake, and I say that the young people of today ought to take a lesson from that. They ought to be careful what they join,” Byrd said.

But the reality was he was able to overcome his past after doing really dumb shit in his youth — which is what youth was supposed to be all about.

We’re so afraid of everything we do, everything we write, everything we say today because it can come back to hurt our careers. It’s not surprising given the constant rant by self-professed image and branding experts out there who want to help you package yourself like a box of cereal instead of a real person living in the world trying to learn and trying to make a difference.

Byrd lived his life the way he thought he should, as a young man and later as a veteran of Congress. Whether you agree with what he’s done in his life or not, you can’t accuse him of being little more than a box of Cheerios.

And one final reality check — believe it or not, Byrd was not on Twitter.

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