By Edwin M. Yoder, Jr.
Sunday, August 4, 1996
The Washington Post
Connoisseurs of political trivia will note that in the 1950 edition of V.O. Key's classic Southern Politics, the author needed only 17 pages to explicate the operations of Virginia politics -- five or six pages fewer, on average, than for the more exotic varieties of Dixie statecraft.
Why? A two-word explanation will do. It is "Harry Byrd," the six-term U.S. senator, founder of what was known to its friends as the Byrd Organization (or simply "the organization") and to its forlorn foes and critics as the Byrd machine. It ruled Virginia for upwards of three decades.
Byrd's ascendancy extended from his term as a mildly "progressive" governor of the late 1920s to the eve of his retirement from the U.S. Senate and death in the mid-1960s. Virginia was then, in Key's term, "a political museum piece." A well-managed museum, where everything is in its place, is far easier to describe than a political madhouse. And Byrd's Virginia was nothing if not orderly. A franchise severely restricted by the poll tax, operating in a one-party state, enabled a single-digit percentage of eligible voters to elect most state officials. This was technically the key to Byrd's power, though certainly not the only one.
Key, for his part, concluded that Sen. Byrd's power had much to do with Virginia's exalted sense of itself -- with the acceptance, even among the lower orders, that the rule of the best is best. Even black voters, more numerous in Virginia than in most Southern states, remained surprisingly faithful. They too took "pride in being Virginians and [looked] down on lesser peoples," Key observed.
Ronald L. Heinemann's workmanlike biography does not materially challenge Key's explanation, but fleshes it out with a wealth of detail: How this apple-cheeked and amiable apple farmer from Winchester, a sprig of the famous Byrds of Westover, brother to a famed polar explorer, achieved political apotheosis. Harry Flood Byrd began as a reform governor in the late 1920s. After a brief flirtation with FDR and the New Deal, Byrd, entering the Senate in 1933, became a scourge of modern fiscal and social heresies.
Heinemann's portrait of the senator is respectful but not invariably flattering. He views Byrd as a gentlemanly and gracious politician of a humorless and unimaginative turn of mind, the product of a limited formal education (to the 10th grade, when he left school to manage his father's troubled Winchester newspaper). Byrd brought to public matters the conservatism of a prosperous small businessman who had enriched himself as "the apple king." Heinemann quotes Key's caustic comment: "Men with the mentality of tradesmen do not become statesmen."
PERHAPS NOT. But what can be said at this long remove about the quality of Harry Byrd's legacy? Of another statesman it was said that "he had only one idea and it was wrong." Neither assertion would be just in Byrd's case. It is true, however, that one near-obsessive idea defined his notion of good government, in Richmond and Washington. It was "pay as you go," a dogmatic aversion to even modest borrowing for public purposes, a conviction that, season in and out, whatever the fiscal weather, surpluses are good and deficits bad.
More than three decades after the senator passed from the scene, this continues to be a controversial aspect of Byrd's doctrine. The senator and his handpicked successors in Richmond long refused to sanction borrowing for road-building or education, to say nothing of social services. The senator's critics -- Heinemann among them -- calculate that the pay-as-you-go dogma cost Virginia dearly in deferred economic and infrastructure development, to say nothing of stunted services that in Byrd's day ranked the Old Dominion well down the list of states. Recent orgies of federal borrowing may cast a kindlier retrospective light on the senator's tireless jeremiads against fiscal prolepsis. But as always, measure matters. One extreme does not justify another.
Another controversial, and tragic, feature of the Byrd years was the revolt he led against the Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation decision. "Massive resistance," which Byrd personally orchestrated, was a spectacular failure of vision and social conscience.
Heinemann's theory is that massive resistance originated as a political strategy to shore up the "organization" in rural, anti-integrationist Southside Virginia. Inasmuch as Byrd was not a race-baiter (though he long opposed Hawaiian statehood for fear that colleagues of Japanese or other Asian origins might, horror of horrors, appear in the Senate!) the theory is plausible. What is not to be doubted are the tragic consequences of massive resistance: the closing of public schools in Norfolk, Arlington and Prince Edward County (where black children went for years without schooling), which increased racial animosity in a state that took just satisfaction in the clemency of its race relations; a strident and undignified campaign against the Supreme Court; and, when even Byrd's chosen lieutenants in Richmond had to bow to the majesty of law, serious damage to his personal authority.
Still, the picture evoked is attractive in its way. Heinemann's leisurely account of the stable years of Sen. Byrd's ascendancy, when a network of self-selected gentlemen managed the affairs of a large and various state, leave one with a certain nostalgia for the lost world of which the Byrd Organization was a landmark.
To modern eyes, of course, its rule, however honest and responsible, seems narrow, classbound, occasionally petty, and often visionless. Harry F. Byrd will be judged as a man of his time. The trouble was, perhaps, that he was a shade too much of this time, or even of the time before that.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group, is professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University. He is the author of "Joe Alsop's Cold War."
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