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.

Bobby Byrd no longer maintains a home in the state, and rarely even spends a night within its borders. Yet he is putting West Virginia, long the brunt of jokes, back on the map. The state has two fewer elected representatives in Washington now than it did fifteen years ago, but when one of them is Byrd, that hardly seems to matter. He is clearly West Virginia’s favorite son, and traveling with him to his native state makes it easy to understand why.

As soon as the door of the Piedmont Airlines plane closes at Washington National Airport, Byrd is back in his element, among the people of West Virginia. “I feel good when I meet the people down here,” he confides. “They’re home folks. They accept me, when I hug them or shake their hands.” He does a lot of hugging and touching during his hectic one-day visits, whether in the aisles of the airplane, among a crowd at a shopping center, or with people he encounters in the street. His rule of procedure is simply stated: “I may not know them, but they know me. If they look at me, I stop and talk.” The talk may be about arthritis, the price of gasoline, or the weather, but it hardly ever stops. He puts his arm around a young man washing the walls at the Kanawha County Airport in Charleston and huddles in a confidential conversation with him. He squeezes the shoulder of a policeman driving him to the airport in Huntington and asks, “How’re you gettin’ along in your work? Do you like your work?” A security guard shouts out, “Hey, Senator Byrd, will you have a spot in the Cabinet for me?” and the Senator beams knowingly. “Where’re you from?” he asks a man who reaches out to him in the plane. “Oak Hill.” “Oak Hill? Be sure to say hello to my friend Shirley Donnelly” (a minister). “Sure thing, Senator, I’ll call him in the morning.”

At the Parkersburg Rotary Club, a bastion of Republican conservatism in an area along the Ohio border where both parties are strong, Byrd talks about crime—or, as he is more inclined to pronounce it in West Virginia, “crahm.” It is a tough law-and-order talk that could be straight out of the late 1960s:

I think the proliferation of crime all across our country can be largely attributed to one fact: there is so little punishment for it. Fewer and fewer criminals pay any penalty for crimes they commit. Retribution is so slow as to be almost nonexistent in an overwhelming majority of criminal situations. The old adage that crime does not pay is no longer true in case after case. ... The best way—and perhaps the only way—to halt the crime wave that has been getting worse and worse ... is to lock up the criminals. ... I say that it is better to build more prisons and hire more jailers than it is to allow American cities to deteriorate further into jungles in which no one is safe. It may not be popular to say so, but some people belong in jail, and the quicker we recognize that fact and put them there the better off our society will be.

“Bob shouldn’t be talking like that,” says one old friend of his privately after the meeting. “That stuff is easy, and everybody knows it. He should be talking about the great issues of the day—the energy crisis, the economy ...” Those issues are the ones the reporters at the luncheon ask him about afterwards, and he gives his stock reply: that the Democrats in Congress have better answers than President Ford, and once given time to develop and pass their programs, they will show the country the way out of its problems. On the whole, the Rotary appearance is a happy one for the Senator. Only one thing nags at him: an old friend said, in his introduction, that Byrd has a 95 percent attendance record in the Senate; “actually it is just over 96 percent.”

Byrd visits a real estate office that has pictures of him from the early days of his political career, and a photographic studio that is making new portraits of him for a museum soon to be started up in Parkersburg; then he embarks on a long drive to Huntington with Chester Airhart, the Democratic sheriff of Wood County, and his principal deputy for tax collection. Until his recent retirement and entry into politics, the sheriff was for many years the FBI resident agent in Parkersburg, and Byrd chats with him about how much crime has increased in the area—80 percent in a year. Airhart is proud of the county’s newly opened “correctional center,” but reinforces the Senator’s view that “we haven’t figured out any way to correct them yet.” The deputy is a wizened character who, as Byrd notes later, “knows a little bit about West Virginia politics.” The conversation focuses on the gubernatorial race in 1976 and the chances of Jay Rockefeller (John D. IV, the Democrat and adopted West Virginian in the Rockefeller family, who lost on his last try). The primary, potentially a divisive one, is another fight that Byrd will sit out, accepting the voters’ verdict on who should join him on the Democratic ticket. He could accept Rockefeller, even though that ambitious young man was once found in the unfortunate situation of having contributed money to a Byrd opponent in the primary. (The Senator, who beat that opponent with 89 percent of the vote, says he doesn’t even remember the man’s name.) In Huntington, Byrd joins in on-the-air festivities inaugurating a new transmission tower for WOWK-TV. He is in no mood for small talk with the station officials before the ceremony, and looks stiff and out of place in the midst of falling baloons as he pulls the switch to activate the new tower; but later he enjoys the taping of a half-hour “newsmaker” interview with two reporters, an easy, unaggressive encounter in which the Senator has plenty of opportunity both to play the statesman on national issues and to boast about all that he done for West Virginia. He has no compunction about saying that he will “use whatever influence I can bring to bear,” as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee which approves the budget for the Department of the Interior, to have an experimental coal gasification plant located in the state.

Byrd’s power base in West Virginia, like his position in Washington, is strictly a one-man operation. Whereas the state’s other senator, Jennings Randolph, is the favorite of the United Mine Workers and other unions, and Republicans like Governor Arch Moore are entrenched with the state’s business community, Byrd keeps his distance from both. “Bob Byrd’s strength is in the people who come down from the hollows to vote for him. Some of them only vote when he is running,” says his press secretary, John Guiniven. The resilience of that power base has never really been tested, because since he first entered Congress in 1952, Byrd has never faced a tough election fight. En route to the airport for the flight back to drive Washington, Byrd lights up one of his favorite big fat cigars; but when there is no time to finish it, he stubs it out and slips what is left of it back into his briefcase. On the plane, he gives the stewardess his autograph and talks resignedly about how little power he feels the leaders of the Senate really have: “It’s frustrating, you know. People expect too year. ... What power do I have? Or Mike Mansfield? We can have some input into legislative policy, sbut you’re still just one senator, and there are ninety-nine others with their own ideas about how things ought to work ... Now the President, he speaks for the executive branch; he has real power.”

When Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was elected to the Senate from Delaware in 1972, and at thirty became the youngest member of that august body, he had a great deal of help from some prominent and established fellow Democrats. Statewide mailings went out from Washington, carrying the pictures and signatures of celebrities like Teddy Kennedy, Birch Bayh, and others, exhorting the voters to “send Joe Biden” down to join them. Some politicians spoke in Delaware on his behalf, and there was an appearance in the conservative area below the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal by one Robert C. Byrd. Barely six weeks after the election, Biden’s wife and young daughter were killed in a traffic accident in Wilmington (his two sons survived). Although the funeral was a small, private matter, a public memorial service was held in a suburban Catholic church, and Biden let it be known through an aide that he would welcome the attendance of any of his new colleagues who had helped him in the campaign and could break away from their holiday schedules. Only one came: Bobby Byrd. He drove up from Washington on a cold, miserable, rainy night and sat unobtrusively in the back row of the church. After the service, according to one man who observed the scene closely, Byrd stood in line for seventeen minutes for the opportunity to shake Biden’s hand and say a few words of condolence. Then he left for the two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Washington.

When Biden came to Washington to interview people for his staff, he had the use of the Whip’s ornate, chandeliered office in the Capitol. Along with Walter Huddleston of Kentucky and a few other members of that year’s class of freshman Democratic senators, he was looked after by Byrd and treated to occasional homemade political science lectures, relating, among other things, that the Senate is made up of “work horses and show horses.” Regardless of their political philosophies, Byrd treated them much the way the late Richard Russell of Georgia had once treated him (from his deathbed, Russell cast the proxy that won Byrd the whip’s job in 1971), and once they became his protégés, they found it much easier to obtain extra office space and other amenities.

Was the Byrd who was so sensitive to Biden in time of tragedy, and beyond, the one who is often mocked for doing and saying the expedient thing in order to enhance his own power? Or the one who without fanfare sent the daughter of the owner of his favorite Chinese restaurant through college after her mother died? Or some of each?

Officially, Mike Mansfield still intends to run for re-election to the Senate in 1976, and to continue for at least another two years as majority leader. If he does not, there are those who say that Lloyd Bentsen of Texas might make a run, that Edmund Muskie of Maine, or Alan Cranston of California, could attract substantial liberal support, or that good old Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota might want to return to the leadership and the limelight. As far as Byrd is concerned, any one of these men could make a fine whip, but there is little doubt in his mind or that of anyone else who carefully counts votes in the Senate that he could beat all of them for the top spot with one hand tied behind his back. Even should Mansfield stay in the Senate, say the people behind the scenes, if a way could be found to guarantee him continued use of his limousine, he would gladly step down in Byrd’s favor. The upstart from West Virginia is probably already working on a way to arrange that, just in case. 

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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