Byrd’s Way

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Photos: A look back at the career of Sen. Robert Byrd.

I remember being summoned to Sen. Robert Byrd’s office for lunch. It was the mid-1980s, and Byrd’s communications director wanted to get him talking to the press more informally. Lunch came and went, everybody’s questions had been asked and answered, yet the senator continued to hold forth. This was a common occurrence when he had a captive audience. Byrd was one of the Senate’s great orators. I learned years later that midway through one of these lunches, a reporter passed a note to the aide monitoring her boss’s remarks. It said, “Free the Byrd 8.”  

Byrd’s time in Congress spanned the years when television was still in its infancy. To his credit, he recognized the power of the medium, unlike many of his contemporaries, and was instrumental in allowing C-Span cameras into the Senate in June 1986. C-Span had been filming the House of Representatives since 1979, and Byrd was persuaded by the argument that little-known House members were recognized at airports in their home states while veteran senators went unnoticed. Still, it was a big leap, and Byrd, as leader, had to beat back a filibuster threat from Louisiana Democrat Russell Long, son of the fabled Huey Long and a prototype of the pre-television age.

Byrd could drag the Senate into the 20th century because his colleagues trusted him to do no harm because he had such reverence for the institution and for the Constitution, a copy of which he carried with him always. He also had a small ledger that his aides called “The List.” He had beaten back a challenge to his leadership in 1984 by keeping a running list of senators who supported him, and rewarding them with committee assignments. But the list wasn’t just a campaign tool; he kept an ongoing tally of his friends, using his power to convene and adjourn the Senate to accommodate an ally with a fundraiser to attend or, conversely, adjusting the schedule to make opponents think twice about the decision.

Every senior aide who went to work for Byrd was issued a leather-bound copy of the Senate rules. Byrd was a stickler for the rules and how to use them. His name lives on in the so-called Byrd Rule, which says any aspect of legislation being considered under budget rules (meaning it can’t be filibustered) must be germane to the budget and have an impact on either spending or revenue. Members can raise objections known as points of order, which can be waived only with 60 votes, a reminder of both the power and fragility of majority rule in the Senate.

One of the more recent and enduring images of Senator Byrd, which is available on YouTube, shows him openly weeping at the news that Sen. Ted Kennedy had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. I remember seeing it and thinking that I hadn’t realized the two men were that close. I later learned how Byrd had rebuilt their relationship after unseating Kennedy as majority whip in January 1971, an especially painful blow to Kennedy 18 months after Chapaquiddick. It was a bitter and contentious battle. Kennedy thought he had the post locked down, and Byrd led him to believe he had given up and gone home to West Virginia. But he snuck back into town and beat him in the end, 31 to 24, creating a major fissure between the two. Kennedy would later thank Byrd for defeating him, saying it freed him to focus on issues rather than procedural fights and caucus politics.

Byrd found his opportunity to get back in Kennedy’s good graces by distancing himself from a president he never liked—Jimmy Carter—and supporting Kennedy’s 1980 bid for the presidency. Byrd thought Carter didn’t show proper respect for the Congress, treating it like the Georgia legislature. Every chance he could, Byrd stuck it to Carter and pushed Kennedy as the candidate of the Senate Democrats. In many ways, Byrd had more in common with the culturally conservative Carter than he did with the liberal lion, but he joined forces with Kennedy on more government spending for social programs, and Kennedy in turn brought him along on civil-rights legislation, helping him to bury his long ago past as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

His weeping uncontrollably under the unforgiving eye of the camera was about more than Kennedy; friends say it was about his late wife, Erma, and their almost 70 years of marriage, together with the passing of an era that he helped shape. Sadly, Erma was not around on Nov. 18, 2009, the day that Byrd became the longest-serving member of Congress in history. It’s a record unlikely to be beaten any time soon.

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