Tons of stories today about West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd who passed away earlier this morning.
Byrd, 92, was the longest-serving senator in America history. He was also the chamber’s resident historian, orating on the Roman version of our deliberative body and pointing out the differences between a republic and a democracy. He was a fierce defender of U.S. Constitution. Few senators were as effective at funneling federal largesse back to their home states. And there was the matter of the late senator’s personal evolution — Byrd in his later years renouncing his past association with the Ku Klux Klan and opposition to civil rights reform.
His death also impacts the Senate’s ability to pass the Wall Street reform bill, by potentially leaving Democrats 1 vote shy of a filibuster-proof majority.
I was a political journalist, in a past life, in Washington D.C. And I was fortunate enough to have met Byrd on at least two occasions.
My first encounter came in July 1987, when Byrd was six months into his new role as Senate Majority Leader — the Democrats having taken back the chamber in the previous year’s election.
The new Leader was in a tough spot. In a 54-46 Senate he needs six Republican votes to avoid filibusters. And Republicans, already preparing for the next election, were in no mood to play ball (including Bob Dole, who was running for president).
Moreover, Byrd wanted the Senate to move at a pace not to his colleagues’ liking. He insisted on sessions lasting into Friday night, a concept none too pleasing to western senators who had grown accustomed to blowing out of town on Thursday evenings. At one point, Byrd even kept the chamber open for business on a Saturday.
Clearly, Byrd reveled in the politics of being top boss. Or so it seemed from talking to him. “We’re going to do our job,” he said in an interview, “and it isn’t whether or not we get out in early October. The question is: are we going to conduct the business of the people.”
And he made it clear whom he thought was in charge: “I have to look at the country’s business and this party of mine is in charge of the Senate. The [Reagan] White House doesn’t dictate the agenda any longer and that’s been a little difficult for the White House to understand.”
One wonders where the Senate would be today if the current Majority Leader, Harry Reid had the same attitude.
Four years later, I had a second interview with the late senator — this time, not as pleasant.
By 1991, Byrd was no longer Majority Leader. George Mitchell now held the job.
Byrd was now Senate President Pro Tem and chairman of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee, a post in which he promised to be West Virginia’s “billion-dollar industry” (“I want to put in Appropriations bills at least one billion dollars [for West Virginia] during my first six years as chairman . . .,” he told the folks back home).
And shower the state he did: federal money for courthouses, prisons, radio telescopes, jobs training centers, ballistics labs and Fish & Wildlife training centers. Not to mention the occasional effort to relocate a few thousand CIA workers to the Mountaineer State (an idea not wildly received by then-CIA Director Robert Gates).
The funny thing was: Byrd had no qualms with what he was doing. To the point that, rather than do an interview over the phone, he invited me down to his Senate office. And, in a conversation sprinkled with a few “young mans” and “you should know better”, he let me know that there was nothing wrong with a senator looking out for his own. And, as if to underscore the point, he delivered this oration sitting behind a desktop of 6×8 index cards, each containing information on his constituents.
Of course, this was before the 24/7 news cycle and the current backlash and federal pork and rising deficits. Then again, Byrd literally was a senator-for-life.
Two last notes: with Byrd’s passing, Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye takes over as the Senate’s elder statesman (his tenure going back to January 1963). Inouye would have to serve another 4 years to equal Byrd’s record of 51-plus years.
And, if you want to learn more about Byrd, he wrote a first-rate autobiography (“Child of the Appalachian Coalfields”) of what it’s like to grow up in an impoverished corner of America.