The Man Who Runs the Senate

Robert Byrd, a little-known, fiddle-playing West Virginian, is the Senate’s Democratic whip, probably its next majority leader, and just possibly a favorite son at the 1976 Democratic Convention. Says he: “I believe that a big man can make a small job important.” Some of his colleagues think Byrd also proves the converse: that big job can help a small man to grow.

Byrd is an enigmatic man, churlish and angry one moment, and coming on with a sly, foxy smile the next. He is capable of alternating rote recitation of political boilerplate and florid eighteenth-century rhetoric with frank and insightful political analyses. He is discouraged by Gerald Ford’s attacks on Congress, and believes that while they may win points for the President in the short run, they will ultimately backfire. “Mr. Ford knows how the system works. He is as partisan as any of us,” he complains; “I think he has a mistaken impression that he can follow the approach that Mr. Truman followed. But circumstances are a lot different now than when Mr. Truman was President, and Mr. Ford is not Mr. Truman.”

Robert Byrd came to Congress as a conservative. Many of his early attitudes and some of the premises he holds to today were developed while he was coming of age as a poor white boy in West Virginia, struggling for a meager existence during the Depression. At first he did not go to Sunday school, because he was embarrassed that he had no socks to wear. For many of those years he earned only $50 a month, even after he had a wife to support (the Byrds were married in 1937). The Byrd family’s first refrigerator was not even an icebox, but half an orange crate nailed outside the kitchen window; there was no car, and when the Byrds wanted to go somewhere they borrowed one from his father-in-law, a coal miner.

Byrd’s manner is taut, and he is notorious on Capitol Hill for being tough with his staff; even on the night before a holiday, they may wait for him to dismiss them before going home. Sometimes his penchant for hard work goes to extremes: when his trusted secretary Ethel Low is away, for example, Byrd himself opens all the office mail. His personal life is spartan. He takes no vacations, rarely touches alcoholic beverages, and is most comfortable in the company of his wife, Erma, two daughters and sons-in-law, and six grandchildren, who are all close at hand in the Virginia suburbs of the capital. There he relaxes with a cigar or the fiddle; often he plays a tune before going to sleep at night. He has very few close friends, in Washington or West Virginia. The senator from whom he has sought advice in recent years is John Pastore of Rhode Island. Asked whom he really trusts and feels he can confide in, he answers only, “My wife.”

Few people knew or cared much about Bobby Byrd (for decades “Senator Byrd” meant Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia) until he achieved a dragon slayer’s reputation in January 1971 by defeating the incumbent Democratic whip, none other than Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The feat was popularly portrayed at the time as an overnight coup, a blow at Kennedy while he was still suffering the effects of the Chappaquiddick scandal. Byrd will not discuss the subject, but he probably does have an old antipathy to the Kennedy family. He supported Hubert Humphrey over John Kennedy in the crucial West Virginia Democratic primary in 1960 (although he was really a Lyndon Johnson man, and went to the convention that year as a Johnson-committed delegate), and had some nasty quarrels on the Senate floor with Robert Kennedy. He clearly would not favor the nomination of Teddy Kennedy in 1976, and says bluntly, “If the pollsters and media would leave [Kennedy] alone, he would keep on being a good senator.” He does not like fashionable, sophisticated liberals, whether as members of dynasties or as individuals.

Actually, Byrd’s 1971 coup was long in the making. In the course of four years, as secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference, a previously meaningless job in itself, Byrd came to function as Mansfield’s de facto right-hand man, doing the routine chores that did not interest Kennedy. While Byrd’s better-known colleagues were off at cocktail parties and other ruinous pursuits (“I despise cocktail parties,” he says; “you just stand around and waste time”), he would stay late at night in the office of the Senate parliamentarian, mastering the intricacies of the Senate rules. Now he knows those rules better than any of his peers, and can make the rules do whatever is needed by him, his friends, or his party.

“I believe that a big man can make a small job important,” says Byrd in one of his favorite bits of armchair philosophy. Some of his colleagues believe that while he is a good example of that maxim, he is also living proof of the converse principle, that a big job can help a small man to grow. During his early days in the Senate—he was elected with the 1958 crop of Democrats who profited from President Eisenhower’s decline in popularity—Byrd took mostly easy, conservative positions. He railed against welfare cheaters and voted against major civil rights legislation, including the 1964 law; he came to have an unbroken record as a hawk on the Vietnam war and related international issues. He denounced student protesters and, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, took his turn worshipping at the altar of J. Edgar Hoover, even after the FBI director’s performance had begun to slip. But by the time his senior colleague from West Virginia, Jennings Randolph, an old-time New Dealer, nominated him for whip when the Democratic caucus convened in 1971, Byrd had metamorphosed into a moderate and had enough progressive votes on his record—including support for open housing and gun control—to be acceptable across the spectrum.

The transformation has continued and intensified. Although he is still regarded more as an institutional creature than as a creative thinker on substantive issues, Byrd has taken several steps leftward into the Democratic mainstream. He talks about the danger that we in the United States will “overextend ourselves” in the world, and he urges a careful review of all of the nation’s international commitments, treaties, and alliances. Once a vehement anticommunist, he now supports the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and he accepted an invitation to visit China this summer. (He was invited once before, but turned down the opportunity because it would have meant being away while the Senate was in session.) This year he supported an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, though he opposed it twice in the past.

Named to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1969, he put a sharp, young—and liberal—aide onto the committee staff in 1971 and then used that vantage point to build a part of his new image. Byrd rarely attended the long Judiciary Committee hearings in the spring of 1972 on the nomination of Richard Kleindienst as Attorney General, but he authorized his Judiciary Committee aide, Tom Hart, to work closely with assistants to Edward Kennedy, of all people, in turning up new ammunition for the anti-Kleindienst effort, especially details of the suspect dealings between the Nixon Administration and the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. Every night Byrd met with Hart to review the latest developments, and he may be one of the few people in Washington who has read the entire 1751-page Kleindienst hearing record. Finally, although he declared Kleindienst to be an able lawyer, and “a man of remarkable charm and ingratiating personality,” he took the Senate floor to say that he would vote against the nomination because “important questions remain unanswered and ... uneasy doubts remain which cannot be explained away.” Byrd was one of only nineteen senators to vote against Kleindienst in the end, but the onetime “law and order” hardliner from the West Virginia hills was becoming a leader of Democrats who saw battle lines drawn with the Nixon Administration over issues of legal and political ethics—issues that later came under the wide Watergate umbrella.

Even before L. Patrick Gray III, acting director of the FBI for a year, was nominated by Nixon as permanent director of the agency, Byrd declared that Gray, would be unacceptable to him. He obtained copies of secret Watergate-related despositions from Washington Post reporters, talked personally on the telephone with airline pilots who disapproved of Gray’s controversial handling of a hijack case (FBI agents shot out the tires of the plane), and relentlessly cross-examined the acting director before the Judiciary Committee. Eventually, it was Byrd who extracted from Gray the damaging admission that John W. Dean III, Nixon’s White House counsel, had “probably” lied to the FBI during the early stages of the Watergate investigation. That statement led Dean to begin talking with prosecutors in order to protect himself, which in turn helped break the case open. In May of 1973, Senator William Proxmire (Democrat of Wisconsin), ordinarily no great admirer of his party’s whip, declared that Robert Byrd was “the unsung hero” of the Watergate investigation then gathering force.

When Clarence M. Kelley was named FBI director in the summer of 1973, Byrd spent an entire day quizzing him and asked the only tough questions of the hearings, zeroing in on the issue of whether FBI practices violated civil rights. He negotiated a promise of independence for the Watergate special prosecutor and demanded close scrutiny of Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, the first two Vice Presidents named under the terms of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.

Byrd’s switch—his new role as a man concerned about civil liberties and a Watergate warrior—was a subject of great curiosity and some wonderment on Capitol Hill. For his own part, he insists that it is the issues and the circumstances which have changed more than his own position; but one longtime Byrd-watcher says, “He realizes where the tide is going, and he will drift with it to compile a public record that is more defensible and acceptable” than his old narrowly conservative posture. Another suggests simply, “It was inevitable: he went national.”

Byrd still keeps the faith on some points of conservative orthodoxy, denouncing busing, for example, not only on policy grounds, but also because “it is a waste of money—buying buses and burning all that gasoline.” The slightest mention of repression by the South Korean government sets him off on a tirade: “If we want to talk about repression, let’s talk about India. We have to look out for our own interests sometimes; we can’t tell everyone what kind of government to have. ... As long as a government is pro-United States and the country is important to our long-range national interests, we have got to look out for Uncle Sam first.” He frets about “over-liberal” social theorists, and is delighted that the “libertarian” justices on the Supreme Court have been balanced out by Nixon appointees. (During his period of flirtation and friendship with the Nixon Administration, he himself was considered for a Supreme Court slot.)

The result of all this is a jagged, if well-mapped, course through the middle. Byrd has his own conception of where the American people stand ideologically—somewhere just right of center—and if he has his way, he will steer the Democratic party there. He is increasingly asserting himself as a national spokesman for the party, appearing on Sunday network television interview programs at the drop of a hat. He is said to be looking for a good speechwriter who can take on the Republican Administration.

Presented by

Sanford J. Ungar, a prominent American author and journalist, was the magazine's Washington editor for many years. He is currently the president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

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