“Bobby Byrd is a member of the early morning health club,” says the master of ceremonies. “Every morning, early, he gets up, calls Mike Mansfield, and asks him, ‘How’s your health?’”
The occasion is a luncheon “roasting” in honor Robert Carlyle Byrd, fifty-seven, junior senator from West Virginia, and the Democratic whip of the Senate. It is given by the P. T. Barnum Tent of the Circus Saints & Sinners Club of America—one those slick and seamy Washington events where early everyone is called a “VIP,” the food is inedible, and the true aficionados arrive early to catch a striptease show over pre-lunch cocktails before the more worldly political hoopla begins. Byrd, the fall guy for the day, does not ordinarily travel in these hell-raising stag circles. He has a standing rule against attending downtown (off Capitol Hill) lunches and, in fact, proclaims himself to have “no time to socialize” at all; there is too much work for that. During twenty-three years in Washington, he has been to one football game (to crown the queen at half time), three baseball games (two of them in one day, a doubleheader), and one movie (he found it dull and left in the middle). He does watch television now and then, however, and once protested on the Senate floor when Gunsmoke, a favorite of his, was canceled.
But such are the responsibilities of power and acceptance on the national scene that Byrd has reluctantly agreed to be feted by the Saints & Sinners, to try to enjoy himself. Business on the Senate floor makes him unavoidably but conveniently late—it would hardly do if a statesman soon to speak at a national Baptist convention in Atlantic City appeared at a striptease. Once on hand, in a vast ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel, he sits through interminable introductions of other people, some very unfunny skits about moonshine liquor in “West By-God Virginia,” and a nightclub comic whose routine consists largely of imitating drunken men coming home late at night to their angry wives. Given his turn, Byrd allows as how the affair “is an honor for a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia,” and he announces that the $500 charitable contribution in his name which is part of the day’s honors will go to the family of a police officer recently killed in Beckley, West Virginia. He surprises many people in the audience by telling a few off-color jokes himself. Then the usually dour Senator picks up his most reliable prop, his fiddle, and plunks out “Rye Whiskey,” complete with hoots and lyrics. That brings the house down, so he plays another, “Goin’ Up Cripple Creek,” which he dedicates to Mike Mansfield.
Byrd’s lusting after Mike Mansfield’s job as majority leader has become one of the central factors and favorite jokes of Democratic politics in the Senate. It is all “an exaggerated assumption,” says he; “I don’t have the consuming desire that people attribute to me”—although, “if the position were to open up, I would be compelled to run for it. I believe in advancing forward, moving up.” For the moment, Byrd insists, he is content to work under Mansfield, whom he names without a trace of hesitation as the colleague he most respects: “I admire his patience, his fairness and his honorableness, his integrity. ... This may appear to be self-serving, but that is how I feel.”
The relationship, by all accounts and appearances, works very well indeed. Mansfield plays the senior statesman, the venerated elder from Montana who makes broad policy pronouncements and worries about the future of the republic, while Byrd runs the Senate. Through a series of procedural changes he has initiated or supervised during the past few years, including a shortening of the Senate’s “morning hour” and of the speeches that may be given during it, Byrd controls the floor and, most of the time, who may have it and how it may be used. (One rule, which has other senators depending upon him and their aides detesting him, bans all senatorial staff from the chamber except when the man they work for is speaking.) He hammers out the “consent agreements” that keep the Senate running smoothly and efficiently—and, some argue, without its old charm and unpredictability—and he stays on the floor most of the time to be sure that the agreements are carried out. In a word, he is probably as powerful as anyone in the legislative branch, because of the access he controls and the shrewdness with which he uses it.
Most senators in both parties seem to feel that Byrd performs his tasks fairly, although he has been known to pull a few fast ones on liberal Democrats he considered to be advocating extreme positions and on Republicans he suspected of exploiting procedure for partisan advantage. During the recent debate over how to solve the disputed New Hampshire Senate election, for example, he said he would happily go along with a GOP suggestion to have the proceedings televised, but on the strict condition that the Republicans agree to set a time limit on the debate. The Republicans, who wanted to filibuster until the Democrats agreed to send the whole issue back to New Hampshire for a new election, quickly backed out.
“This never would have happened if Lyndon Johnson were still with us,” said an aide to one liberal Democratic senator when three conservative southern members of the party repeatedly foiled attempts by the Democratic leadership to invoke cloture and cut off debate on the dispute over how to settle the New Hampshire election deadlock this summer. Sooner or later Johnson would have forced a resolution of the issue, whether by discipline or backroom deal. Indeed, there could be no greater contrast between the Johnson style of Senate leadership—in which arms were twisted and egos bruised if necessary to work out compromises and pass critical legislation—and the soft, easygoing Mansfield style, which places full confidence in the ability of the Senate eventually to “work its will.” The question is how Byrd will handle the majority leadership if he succeeds to it. “There are advantages to both [the Mansfield and Johnson] styles,” he says diplomatically, “but if I had to choose between the two, I prefer the Mansfield approach. ... You have to remember, you have a different Senate now from when Mr. Johnson was the leader. He was in a position to utilize discipline more than it can be used now, and there is no longer a very cohesive southern bloc.” That cohesiveness was one of the key constants in Johnson’s formula for working his will on the Senate. One important difference is that the Democrats today have a far larger, more unwieldy, and somewhat less pragmatic majority in the Senate than in the Johnson days of the 1950s; a growing number of senators are inclined to vote their conscience on this matter or that. But many senators suspect that Byrd would try to assert greater authority over his troops than he is prepared to admit.
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.
“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.
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.