The script is quintessentially Virginian. First, there is confusion and uncertainty. Then a Byrd is offered up as the savior, the only thing standing between Virginia and chaos.
That was the signal sent out Friday by the grand old men of the state's once-powerful Byrd organization. As intended, their appeal to Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. to re-enter Virginia's muddled Senate race sent shock waves through both political parties.
The move by former governor Mills E. Godwin and two other key conservatives was interpreted by some as a bald power play, an attempt by the state's dormant old guard to take advantage of the vacuum created by the Democratic Party's disarray.
And in one sense they have succeeded.
Godwin said after the announcement that he does not expect Byrd to disclose his intentions until after the two parties' nominating conventions next weekend. That delay, typically cryptic, has cast a pall over the meetings of Republicans in Richmond and Democrats in Roanoke.
Although the conservatives' announcement was prompted by two months of Democratic disorder, most agree it is the Republicans who will have the most to lose if Byrd, 67, runs again as an Independent.
For more than a year, their apparent nominee, Paul S. Trible, a 35-year-old congresssman from Newport News, said he would never oppose the venerated three-term senator, whose name is almost sacred among some Virginians. And for good reason: a Byrd candidacy would certainly siphon away conservative votes, and money, from the GOP.
Although state GOP Chairman Alfred Cramer released a statement yesterday reaffirming full party support for Trible, some Republicans were openly chagrined by this latest turn of events. "It's a divisive thing that I think will fizzle--that I hope will fizzle," said retired Brig. Gen. Ben Partin, Fairfax GOP chairman. "At this stage of the game, to pull this kind of shenanigan is disruptive."
Partin feared that a three-way race, with Byrd running as an independent, would only guarantee the election of "one of those liberals."
By contrast, Democrats could hardly contain their glee, jumping on the Godwin announcement as proof that the state's senior conservatives are troubled by Trible's youth and ambition. "These guys are saying that Paul Trible is just a brash young boy, a 35-year-old pipsqueak," said state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, the state's top black elected official, whose threat to bolt the Democratic party was the catalyst for his party's problems.
"It certainly would help our side," said former congressman Joseph L. Fisher of Arlington, who on Friday began his own campaign for the Democratic nomination.
But not all Democrats were so sanguine. William G. Thomas, the lobbyist and former Democratic chairman, said that if Byrd gets in the race, both parties are the losers. "The senator is still very, very tough," he said. "I would have to say he would be the favorite."
It is not the first time that a Byrd had been beseeched to stay and keep watch over the status quo in Virginia. In 1958, the senator's all-powerful father, then 71 and in his 43rd year of public office, was petitioned by all but one member of the Virginia General Assembly to "reconsider his announced intention to retire from the United States Senate. The general welfare of the entire United States and Virginia demands his continued service . . . ."
It worked that time. The elder Byrd did run again--unopposed, which is the way things used to be in Virginia--only to retire in November 1965, almost a year before he died. No sooner did he leave the scene than his son was propelled forward to take his place.
That was the way things used to be. Logical, proceeding according to a well-organized progression. The Byrd organization would pass along the word and the "anointed" would be elected.
Those who disagreed--blacks, liberals and other dissenters--were shut out from the business of government. It was all much simpler back in the days of the one-party state--at least for some Virginians.
Former Delegate W. Roy Smith, one of the three who launched the Byrd boomlet Friday, said he had been disappointed by the recent divisions in the Democratic Party, singling out what he termed the "polarizing" effect of Wilder's gamble with an independent Senate campaign.
"That statement--it is an appeal to racism," Wilder retorted yesterday. "What they are really doing is saying--we'll make an open and direct appeal to white voters to lead us back to the happy days, the good old days."