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The Unyielding Robert Byrd


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  • By Frank Ahrens
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, February 11, 1999; Page C1

    Sen. Robert Byrd is a believer in holy documents. They are the sacred tools for defending his Senate against the savages.

    The Bible is one such holy book. He learned to read with the King James Version and, seventy-some years later, has little use for any other Bible. Something about modern translations seems to sap the words of their sacred power.

    The U.S. Constitution is also holy writ. Watch him wield it:

    In a motion practiced over the last half-century, the West Virginia Democrat whips his right hand into his left breast pocket and pulls out a passport-size copy of the Constitution kept, not coincidentally, over his heart.

    "There it is," he says. "I've come to see it as a bible. It is the political bible in statecraft."

    Senators are sworn to protect the Constitution, thereby making the Senate a holy place, Byrd believes. So when he regards this tawdry impeachment trial, which has traipsed muddy bootprints of perjury and constitutional tinkering and unspeakable sexual acts into his Senate -- his Senate -- befouling the holiest of his holy places, his moral indignation is palpable.

    Republican Trent Lott and Democrat Thomas Daschle, the party leaders, have been most visible during this trial. They are the New Senate, outward-focused, media-savvy. Byrd is the Old Senate, maybe even the Olde Senate. In mid-January, when the Senate was bickering over how the impeachment trial should proceed, Byrd gave a closed-door speech to his colleagues, warning that "the House has fallen into the black pit of partisan self-indulgence. The Senate is teetering on the brink of that same black pit." Several senators cited his speech as a crucial reminder that they are senators and ought to behave better. Quickly, a bipartisan deal was struck.

    The Senate, after all, has been Byrd's biosphere since 1958. At 81, he has no idea what he would do if he weren't a senator, so he's running for his eighth straight term next year. His visage seems already chiseled into its marble walls, an indignant scowl gazing down on colleagues who would subvert the constitutional process for deciding a president's fate.

    Byrd was so offended by Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky affair that early on it seemed his vote was up for grabs. Then, two weeks ago, he introduced a proposal to dismiss the charges -- not so much to let the president off the hook as to expel the vile thing from his Senate. Last weekend, even with his vote for acquittal now assured, he was still baring his internal struggles.

    "It would be very difficult to stand and say not guilty, very difficult," he said on Saturday. "Who's kidding whom here? I have to live with myself. I have to live with my conscience." Even though he believes the president has committed high crimes, removing Clinton from office may cause the nation more harm than allowing him to stay, Byrd says. He will ultimately have it both ways: He will vote for acquittal while maintaining his moral outrage.

    After four decades in his seat, Byrd has honed his role, which seems to have led to this moment. As a schoolboy, he was proudest of the high grades he got in deportment. Little has changed. Now, with the Constitution in hand, he is the Senate's own righteous scold.

    Lessons From a Senator


    Byrd is legendary for a style of oratory and gilded loquaciousness that evokes the Senate of the '90s -- the 1890s. "I think he'd prefer nothing better than to have a conversation with Henry Cabot Lodge," says Steven Smith, a Senate scholar at the University of Minnesota. Sometimes, Byrd seems poised to launch into a fulmination on Free Silver or some other 19th-century row. His Senate speeches are often more of a lesson, a Western Civ survey pegged -- or maybe not -- to a pending piece of legislation.

    There is a well-defined image of Byrd, standing behind his Senate desk, a thumb hooked in a red vest, quoting Shakespeare or Aeschylus, inveighing against the line-item veto or the propensity of young people to pepper their conversation with "you know." He has said there have been only two great senates in the history of the world -- Rome's and the United States'. With a larger-than-life portrait of himself on his office wall, Byrd stands somewhere between unbearable pomposity and endearing antiquity.

    "I have used the analogy sometimes that he thinks he ought to wear a toga and be the spirit of the Senate," says Don Marsh, former editor of the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, and longtime Byrd-watcher.

    Last week he sat in his second office, a small one in the Capitol near the Senate Appropriations Committee room -- which he chaired from 1989 until 1994 -- surrounded by mementos of the second longest tenure (after Strom Thurmond) in the Senate. Fixed high on the walls, all around the room, are large placards of quotes by and about the senator. They read like book jacket blurbs. Here is Byrd's favorite, from former Democratic House speaker Jim Wright:

    "Bob is a living encyclopedia and legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him."

    Perhaps that should be a warning to his colleagues in the House of Representatives who have brought this trial -- this awful trial -- into the Senate. But if there's anything worse than the trial itself, it's the mishandling of it. Some of his Republican colleagues, recognizing that they didn't have 67 votes for conviction, had sought an easier way out, a "findings of fact" gambit that could have passed with only a majority vote. No, no, no, says Byrd, who fairly spits the phrase "findings of fact." He begins the lesson on impeachment:

    "The Constitution is a cul-de-sac when it comes to impeachment," he says. "There is no escape exit. There is only one way and that is to deal directly with the articles of impeachment."

    His drawl is both stately and sharp. When he speaks, his eyes screw shut tightly, as if straining to see the words in his head. He grips the air with a hand. Sometimes, the pauses in his sentences last an achingly long 15 seconds, 20 seconds . . . and aides stop transcribing his comments to look up, wondering where, or if, he'll continue. Then, bang! he resumes, seamlessly picking up his thought or thousand-year-old quotation. His eyes are moist and blue, and they regard you in a straightforward, sidelong and sly manner, often within the same five-minute sentence/lecture.

    He is a politician. He has often sought easy outs to sticky legislative situations. But this impeachment trial . . . this is different.

    "This is not an agricultural appropriations bill we're talking about," he says. "This is not minimum wage. This is not the environment. They are all important, and we all, to some extent, play politics when it comes to legislation. But this is the Constitution!"

    Finally comes the summation, in classic Byrd-speak:

    "This approach will leave a blotch upon the political escutcheon of any individual who thinks first of politics and second of the institution."

    Class dismissed.

    Byrd's Rules


    This senator vacuums his McLean house. He plays little tricks on Erma, his wife of 61 years, who cooks his dinner every night. ("Robert," she calls him.) He frets about squirrels getting in his backyard bird feeder. He once recorded a fiddle album and guest-starred on "Hee Haw."

    Still, even as Byrd sits in his kitchen and eats a piece of his wife's corn bread, "there's something about him that commands respect," says his grandson Eric Fatemi, 33, an editor at Education Week in Bethesda. The senator was never interested in how far young Eric could throw a football or baseball. Instead, he quizzed the boy on American history, and gave him a quarter for each right answer.

    Which is how young Bobby Byrd became Senator Byrd.

    Byrd was a year old -- named Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. -- and living in North Carolina when his mother died of influenza. In accordance with her wishes, his father dispersed the children among family members. Young Cornelius came to live with an aunt and uncle named Byrd in southern West Virginia, who renamed him Robert Carlyle. His adoptive daddy never gave him little-boy things. No cowboy outfits. No caps or firecrackers. Even though the old man couldn't read but a little, he was smart enough to give his new son a ticket out of a miner's life: Little Bobby Byrd got watercolors and sketch pads and books. Lots of books.

    Like any little boy, he found heroes. But they weren't the same heroes as other lads of the '20s -- Babe Ruth or Sgt. York. His heroes came from two centuries before -- Francis Marion, the Revolutionary general, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. Byrd probably was the only little boy in any West Virginia coal camp to understand what a Constitutional "framer" was.

    And he never quit. His Horatio Alger stories are well-trafficked by his office: He earned his law degree over 10 years of night classes at American University, for instance. "Some of us are awfully smart when we're 17 who haven't gotten a hell of a lot smarter since then," says Michael Barone, editor of the Almanac of American Politics. "This is a man who's gotten a lot smarter over the years."

    Indeed, Byrd has packed his head full of facts and quotations and dates and will, if you're not careful, rattle off the entire English monarchy. Correctly. His is the sort of American self-improvement championed by the Reader's Digest bromide: "It Pays to Improve Your Word Power." It's not the intellectualism of a Pat Moynihan. And, often, memorization is a sly imitation of erudition. But it's all part of the Byrd image.

    But there was more than self-improvement at work. Less noted about Byrd is his pursuit of power and stern wielding of it. Once, after winning a Senate leadership position, he analyzed the penmanship of his colleagues' handwritten votes to determine who had voted against him. Another time, while chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he was in the middle of a long speech on the floor. As he was asking for more time, John Chafee (R-R.I.) rose to protest. Byrd pivoted and thanked the senator for the nice note about a project that was currently up for funding before Byrd's committee. Chafee laughed, chastened, and sat down. Byrd kept talking.

    Much has been made of Byrd's adoration of Senate rules. He's been depicted as a grandfatherly keeper of attic curios. But that's missing the point.

    "I don't receive any inspiration from reading the Senate rules," he says. "To most people, they're dry. They're dry to me."

    But as a freshman senator from a small state in 1959, Byrd quickly learned why he needed to plow through the rules.

    "I saw, when I first came here, that in knowing the rules and precedents of the Senate there is great power," he says. It was Byrd's creative interpretation of Senate rules that helped push through the Panama Canal giveback. His elaborate procedural roadblocks frustrated Robert Dole as the Republican leader tried to win GOP mandates in the chamber.

    It was also a way for Byrd to craft his own identity within the Senate, perhaps the ultimate club of overachievers.

    "He has taken on the role of protector of this institution the likes of which no one has before or probably will in the future," says Daschle (D-S.D.). "He felt it was important to take ownership of those things, like rules and order."

    Despite a 41-year career in the Senate, Byrd's name is attached to little high-profile, big-idea legislation. Instead he has become something of a Senate conscience, which, says Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), has kept a modicum of dignity in the Senate during the impeachment trial, despite Byrd's assertion that the Senate has "descended into a snake pit."

    "One thing Byrd can do better than anybody else is to keep people's threshold of embarrassment lower that it would be otherwise," says Obey, who represented the House in appropriations conference committee meetings with Byrd. "Byrd, I think, knows how to generate peer pressure on people."

    Obey recalls a meeting during the 1990 budget summit with Byrd and John Sununu, the Reagan White House chief of staff. Sununu put his feet up on the table; Byrd immediately told him to remove them and to start treating people like gentlemen. Sununu complied, at least with the first command.

    "Some will view him as quaint, and he probably he is," Obey says of Byrd. "But this institution needs the qualities he has, needs them very badly. If you had 50 people like him, the place probably wouldn't function. But if you didn't have him, I think the whole impeachment process would have been much more bitter in the Senate than it has turned out to be."

    The Campaign Life


    One former aide describes Byrd's pursuit of knowledge and need for order as part of his "desire for mastery." Within the clubby Senate of the '50s and '60s, it was possible to become prominent by mastering the rules and establishing close friendships and alliances. But by 1977, when Byrd became his party's leader, Congress was in the post-Watergate era, and under much more media scrutiny.

    As Democratic leader, he became the go-to guy for the newspapers, the networks and the Sunday morning talk shows. Suddenly, his slow drawl, his antique language, his inability to forge a soundbite that would coalesce an issue in the public mind began to hurt him.

    "Now, legislative battles are fought in the media and by appealing to external constituencies as much as they are by appealing quietly to your colleagues and depending on favors earned and friendships to win the day," says Smith, the political scientist. "I think the television age isn't the Robert Byrd age."

    Which may be one reason why Byrd was thrilled to return to the inner workings of the Senate when he assumed control of the Appropriations Committee in 1989. It was a place where he understood everything. He told everyone that he'd use the post to become West Virginia's leading industry, promising $1 billion in federal funds for the state. He met that goal in two years. As a result of his largess, there are visitor centers, schools, scholarships, locks and dams, and at least 20 highways -- and one large bronze statue in the state capitol rotunda -- dedicated to Byrd. An editorial cartoon once depicted him walking from Washington to West Virginia, his overcoat bulging with federal agencies.

    Suffice to say, Byrd's seat is safe. He carried all 55 of his state's counties during the 1994 election, a fact that he likes to point out. But he still campaigns hard.

    John Protan, a former coal miner and Boone County Democratic Party chairman since 1964, recalls the senator's appearance at a 1994 campaign stop. Byrd fiddled and fiddled and closed the party down, staying long after most had gone home. This was in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 8-to-1.

    "But mostly it's good when somebody runs scared a little bit," says Protan, 78. "You work a lot harder."

    As a young man campaigning for the West Virginia legislature in the '40s, Byrd briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan, hoping to gain votes. He quickly quit and has spent the past half-century publicly regretting it.

    Byrd delights in remembering the names of constituents and what hollers they live up, Protan says. Yet he has rarely endorsed a state political candidate and maintains a sense of distance. It is how Byrd can be common and imperial at the same time.

    There's a saying in West Virginia that goes: "Don't trust a man who don't chew or carry a pocket knife." Clipped to Byrd's belt is a small silver penknife. As for chaw, he'd rather smoke an afternoon Presidente cigar.

    Calling the Tune


    Byrd won't play his fiddle during the 2000 campaign. Thanks to something called a "benign essential tremor," his hands shake. Sometimes, it's barely noticeable. Other times, like last week when he was leafing through the four-volume history of the Senate that he wrote, it's violent. At any rate, it was enough to make him quit his fiddle.

    "I couldn't control my bow," he says. He calls the affliction a "cosmetic embarrassment."

    He's been told it can be treated with drugs or brain surgery.

    "But I don't want them in my skull," he says, tapping the back of his white head.

    Understandable. He's spent a lifetime packing it full of stuff. It's orderly and tidy in there, with facts and quotes at the ready for any occasion. And he's not about to let some impertinent sawbones in there, snipping wires and thrashing about like, well, like some barbarous hooligan running loose in Robert Byrd's Senate.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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