Harry F. Byrd Jr., former U.S. senator from Va., dies at 98

Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported that Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Barack Obama in 2008 were the only Democratic presidential candidates to carry Virginia after the Byrd organization began tacitly endorsing Republican candidates in 1952. President Obama also carried the state in 2012.


Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. reads The Winchester Star in Winchester, Va., on Dec. 22, 1983. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
July 30, 2013

Harry F. Byrd Jr., a scion of Virginia’s most potent political dynasty who succeeded his father both as a U.S. senator and as a defender of old-time fiscal conservatism and the last vestiges of state-enforced racial segregation in Virginia, died Tuesday at his home in Winchester, Va. He was 98.

Wynnona Kirk, an assistant to Mr.Byrd and his son, Thomas T. Byrd, confirmed his death but did not cite a specific cause.

Courtly and dignified, Mr. Byrd had the appearance and manners of a Southern gentleman and a pedigree to match. His family had lived in Virginia since the 17th century and had achieved remarkable successes in business and politics.

The Byrds came to dominate state affairs with a Democratic machine that largely controlled political appointments and held a seemingly unshakable hold on the Virginia electorate.


Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. in 1966. (AP Photo/Henry Griffin, File)

The organization’s political philosophy was embodied, in part, by the anti-debt, “pay-as-you-go” fiscal policy that brought Harry Byrd Sr. to prominence in Virginia in the 1920s and remained a dominant force in state politics until the 1980s.

But the Byrds also embraced the tenacious injustice of state-enforced segregation. During Harry Byrd Jr.’s time as a state senator, the Byrd machine, under the banner of states’ rights, orchestrated Virginia’s “massive resistance” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that outlawed segregated public education.

Harry Byrd Jr. spent 17 years in the Virginia Senate before Gov. Albertis S. Harrison Jr. (D) appointed him to the U.S. Senate in 1965, when his father resigned for health reasons; the elder Byrd died the next year. Mr. Byrd won a special election in 1966 to fill the four years remaining in the term.

In 1970, Mr. Byrd joined the long train of conservative Southern Democrats who broke with the party in the second half of the 20th century. He abandoned his father’s party but not his father’s principles and won reelection as an independent. In 1976, he was the only independent reelected to the Senate.

In the chamber, he voted with the Democratic caucus on organizational matters and with conservative Republicans on substantive matters of legislation. He took little part in committee deliberations, where much of the Senate’s work is done, but he was punctilious about attending roll calls on the Senate floor: In 18 years, he was present for 96 percent of them.

Except in the realm of national defense, Mr. Byrd distrusted public expenditures for almost any purpose. Believing that less government is better than more government, he rarely introduced legislation of any kind. One bill he did sponsor restored U.S. citizenship to Robert E. Lee, the Virginia-born Confederate general during the Civil War.

Mr. Byrd’s commitment to economy in government extended to the operation of his Senate office. He returned thousands of dollars in expense money and declined some of his pay increases.

During Senate hearings, he sometimes pointed out to Treasury officials how high the federal deficit had risen in the brief period during which they were testifying. In 1978, he sponsored a bill to require a balanced federal budget beginning in 1981. The law was enacted but never enforced.

In defense and foreign affairs, Mr. Byrd supported the U.S. involvement in Vietnam under President Lyndon B. Johnson as well as President Richard M. Nixon’s efforts to end the conflict.

In 1971, he complicated U.S. relations with African leaders when he pushed through a bill to allow imports of chrome from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In 1966, the Johnson administration had banned such imports on the grounds that Rhodesia was run by a white-supremacist government that denied political and human rights to the black majority. Mr. Byrd said the imports had to resume because chrome was a strategic material and the only other source was the Soviet Union.

Several African leaders complained that the Byrd Amendment had racist overtones. The ban was reinstated in 1977 over Mr. Byrd’s objections and remained in force until a black-majority government came to power.

Race cast a shadow over Mr. Byrd’s political career from the beginning. As a state senator in the 1950s, he played a major role in the massive resistance campaign his father engineered in response to court-ordered school desegregation. A central provision of the program was a state law enacted in 1956 that withheld funding from integrated schools and authorized the governor to close them. The Virginia General Assembly also established tuition grants that enabled students to attend segregated private academies.

In 1958, the state seized and closed several schools in Warren County, Charlottesville and Norfolk to prevent their integration, a takeover ruled illegal by state and federal courts. And after the state government abandoned massive resistance, Prince Edward County closed its school system in 1959, a move the U.S. Supreme Court overturned five years later.

In later years, Mr. Byrd said that although he “personally hated” to see students without schools, he believed that massive resistance had helped avoid violence when Virginia’s schools integrated.

“I think all of that is past now, part of history,” he told The Washington Post in 1982. “Virginia has developed well under the new policies and, as I say, without violence.”

That same year, as a U.S. senator, he opposed renewal of the Voting Rights Act on the ground that it was “unwise for the federal government to dominate a state’s electoral process.”

Unlike many Southern politicians of his generation, Mr. Byrd rarely went out of his way to improve relations with African American constituents, who voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in any case. And after he left the party in 1970, he appeared to have little difficulty winning reelection as an independent. He did not seek reelection in 1982 and retired from politics the next year.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Mr. Byrd “represented in vivid fashion the transition of the Democratic Party from a conservative-dominated organization to one that regularly nominated moderates and liberals.”

The senator was among the first prominent politicians to win reelection as an independent. Sabato said that placed Mr. Byrd in the vanguard of a trend that had conservatives moving away from the Democratic Party and liberals leaving the Republican Party.

Born into politics, apples

Harry Flood Byrd Jr. was born in Winchester on Dec. 20, 1914. His mother was the former Anne Douglas Beverley. His father, Harry F. Byrd Sr., who was governor before entering the U.S. Senate in 1933, was also one of the largest apple growers in the country and the publisher of the Winchester Star and the Harrisonburg News-Record.

Harry Jr.’s grandfather Richard Evelyn Byrd had served as speaker of the House of Delegates and established the Byrd brand in modern Virginia politics. And an uncle, Adm. Richard E. Byrd, was the famed explorer widely credited with being the first person to fly over the North Pole and then the South Pole.

Young Harry had a political upbringing. He accompanied his father to meetings all over the state. Guests at the governor’s mansion in his father’s time included the British statesman Winston Churchill and aviator Charles Lindbergh, who took the boy up in a plane. He attended his first Democratic National Convention in 1932, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt won his first presidential nomination.

After attending the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia — he never graduated — he joined the family newspaper business. During World War II, he served in the Navy in the Pacific. Mr. Byrd ran for political office for the first time in 1947, when he was elected to the Virginia Senate.

Although nominally Democratic, the Byrd organization tacitly endorsed Republican presidential candidates beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. The only Democratic presidential candidates to carry Virginia after that were Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The Byrds, father and son, were famous for making their political preferences known while maintaining what was referred to as “golden silence.”

By the late 1960s, the Byrd organization was in the throes of disintegration. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy requirements for voter registration, and the U.S. Supreme Court declared poll taxes unconstitutional. The high court also mandated the redrawing of legislative districts to reflect population shifts. This gave more representation to Northern Virginia and other urban areas at the expense of Byrd strongholds in rural Southside Virginia.

These changes had a direct effect on the career of Harry Byrd Jr. The organization’s weakening grip was evident in the 1966 party primary, in which he defeated state Sen. Armistead Booth, a liberal from Alexandria, by only 8,225 votes out of 434,217 cast. He won the general election handily.

Turning independent

As the 1970 election approached, many organization stalwarts were switching to the Republican Party, and Mr. Byrd was under pressure to do likewise. When the Virginia Democratic Central Committee voted to require that party candidates support the Democratic ticket in the 1972 presidential election, he decided to run as an independent.

Announcing his decision in a televised address March 17, 1970, he said he could not support a candidate whose identity was not even known. “I realize full well the difficulties I face in this decision,” he said. “But I would rather be a free man than a captive senator.”

In the general election, Mr. Byrd faced George Rawlings, a liberal Democrat, and Ray Garland, a Republican. The outcome was not even close: He received 54 percent of the vote. In 1976, Mr. Byrd received 58 percent of the vote, running against retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, a Democrat and a former chief of naval operations.

When Mr. Byrd retired, Virginia’s political leadership, Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative, turned out at a dinner in his honor in Richmond.

Mr. Byrd returned to his home in Winchester and his apple orchards. He was editor and publisher of the family’s newspaper, a director and vice president of the Associated Press, and a trustee of the Virginia Historical Society.

His wife of 48 years, the former Gretchen Thomson, died in 1989. Survivors include three children, Harry F. Byrd III, Thomas T. Byrd and Beverley E. Byrd, all of Berryville, Va.; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. Thomas T. Byrd is the president and publisher of the Winchester Star.

In 1998, Mr. Byrd published “Defying the Odds,” an account of his 1970 Senate campaign and summarized his principles in these words:

“If one believes that Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy was a liberal one, and historically it has been so construed, then I should be considered a liberal. Like Jefferson, I fear centralization of power. I feel that the least governed are the best governed.”

He went on to say: “Today’s liberal favors greater federal power; believes that Washington, D.C., knows best how our local school systems and other local problems should be handled, and favors more spending and more taxes. By today’s definition, most certainly I am not a liberal; thus it follows that I must be a conservative.

“Conservatism comes from the same root as conservation. I believe in conservation of fundamental principles, of natural resources, of human dignity, and the conservation of the taxpayer’s hard earned dollar.”

J.Y. Smith, a former obituaries editor of The Washington Post, died in 2006.

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