West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who died this morning at 92, was, as his obituaries attest, a master of the rules and parliamentary procedures of the Senate. He used this mastery to influence, for better and worse, many pieces of major legislation over his five-decade career in the Senate. Byrd was a key figure in blocking the Clinton administration's attempt at health reform. The White House had hoped to pass health care by using the budget reconciliation process. Byrd, then chairman of the Appropriations Committee, invoked the "Byrd Rule," which he had established in the 1980s, limiting what could pass by reconciliation to budgetary matters. He didn't think health care reform fit the bill, so it died.
A few years ago, while working on this Atlantic profile of Hillary Clinton, I sought insight into Byrd's thinking by reading his door-stopper of a memoir, Child of the Appalachian Coal Fields, which manages to list every award ever bestowed on him, no matter how insignificant or long ago (he was elected in 1952). And yet, amazingly--even though the book is 832 pages long--it contains not a single mention of the Clinton health care debate.
I point this out because it's revealing as to what Byrd cared about--and also as a warning/act of mercy to fellow journalists doing Byrd profiles and obits. A far better and more revealing read is the
1976 September 1975 Atlantic cover story** on Byrd ("The Man Who Runs The Senate"), who was then at the height of his power and considering running for president.
**Hoping some industrious Atlantic web staffer will figure out a way to post it
Update: In fact, an industrious Web Atlantic staffer is right now scanning-and-posting the September 1975 story by Sanford J. Ungar. It will be up very soon. -Ed.
Update II: Hurray for industrious Atlantic Web staffers. Byrd story from 1975 now live. -Ed.