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.

“Don’t forget 1924,” says a devoted Byrd follower who takes a visiting stranger aside after the Senator has addressed a luncheon of the Parkersburg (West Virginia) Rotary Club. “The Democratic Convention was deadlocked and there seemed to be no way out. Finally, on the ninth day and the hundred-and-third ballot, they turned to a West Virginia boy, John W. Davis.”

That is one way of looking at the events of 1924. John W. Davis had been a member of Congress, Solicitor General of the United States, counsel for the American Red Cross, an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles peace conference, ambassador to Great Britain, and a Wall Street lawyer who represented, among others, the House of Morgan before he became the compromise presidential nominee of the hopelessly divided Democratic party in the race against Calvin Coolidge. But he was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and practiced law there for several years before being elected to the state’s House of Delegates in 1899 and going on to greater fame and fortune.

Robert Byrd started in the West Virginia House of Delegates too, but his background was rather more humble than that of Davis. He was brought to the state from North Carolina when he was a year old, after his mother had died in a flu epidemic, to be raised in coalfields country by an impoverished aunt and uncle who adopted him. (His real name is Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., a fact he learned when he was sixteen. When his brother, Clyde Sale, wrote to him from North Carolina on the occasion of his victory over Edward Kennedy in 1971, he learned for the first time that his true birthdate was November 20, 1917, two months earlier than he had always believed and than is listed in Who’s Who.) He worked as a garbage collector, a gas station attendant, a butcher, and, during World War II, a welder in the shipyards of Baltimore and Tampa; it was only on his election to Congress in 1952, at the age of thirty-five, that he gave up his grocery store in Sophia, a tiny town in Raleigh County. His law degree took ten years to earn in night school, first at George Washington University and then at American University, while he was a member of the House and, later, the Senate.

But the analogy between Byrd and Davis, however flawed, is picking up steam in West Virginia. Davis’ nomination came in Madison Square Garden in New York, which is under consideration as a possible site for the 1976 Democratic Convention. Then, as now, the party, although thought to attract the loyalties of a majority of the public, was torn asunder by factional disputes, even in the aftermath of shameful Republican scandals. Calvin Coolidge, like Gerald Ford, was a man who had succeeded to the presidency but had never been elected to it. Davis was all over the map ideologically, and while he began his career as a conservative (supporting the “Red Raids” of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, for example), he took increasingly liberal, populist-sounding positions; as The Saturday Evening Post saw it at the time, he represented the “respectable medium” among Democrats. Curiously, Davis and Byrd both had political problems concerning their attitude, toward the Ku Klux Klan, Davis for failing to denounce it with sufficient vigor, and Byrd for having been a member in his youth (“a 100 percent mistake,” he now acknowledges). “Fifty years have passed since West Virginia’s only major party candidate for President” was nominated, noted Representative Ken Hechler, a liberal downstate congressman, in a small-town newspaper column last year. Since Davis was from the north of West Virginia, Hechler said,

the time for a good and strong candidate [for President] from the southern part of the state is now here. In recent years, Senator Byrd has broadened his base of appeal. There was once a time when only certain elements in the political spectrum would accord him enthusiastic support. Now he attracts supporters from all those who are tired of deviousness, dishonesty, and deceit in politics and who yearn for a return to traditional virtues which are practiced instead of merely preached.

Byrd, for his own part, plays it cool and coy. “I feel that I can do any job that the American people wish to assign me. I would not reject the nomination, although I am not actively seeking it,” he says. He insists that he has no favorite in the field of declared and undeclared candidates, and, while he was lukewarm about George McGovern in 1972, sees nobody “among the current aspirants” whom he could not support or, for that matter, run with as a vice presidential candidate—including George Wallace of Alabama. He hopes for an open convention that will produce “a moderate ticket, not too far out in any direction.” And although he considers the prospects unlikely, he says it is “not inconceivable that the convention could turn to me.” He would be ready, and thinks that West Virginia law would permit him to run for re-election to the Senate and national office at the same time, just as Lyndon Johnson did in Texas in 1960.

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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