The State of Byrd

Sen. Says Memoir Is Story of W. Va.

Posted June 27, 2005 at 4:20pm

His autobiography, Sen. Robert Byrd says repeatedly, is really the story of West Virginia.

In fact, the Mountain State Democrat goes so far as to assert that “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields” is the state.

And nowhere was this more clear than at an event at the National Archives to celebrate last week’s release of the book (the launch came the day before, appropriately on West Virginia Day).

That muggy Tuesday evening, as Byrd read from his memoir, the selections were all about roots and values. There was almost no mention from his lips of his storied Senate career — except when responding to a question about his childhood dreams. By the way, he tells the audience, he’s “real glad” he never went on to be president. “For me to be a United States Senator is enough.” Nor did Byrd dwell that night on his past membership in the Ku Klux Klan, save possibly for an oblique reference to “the mistakes of a very young, very unsophisticated young man, as he tries to emulate the heroes in his schoolbooks.”

Instead, what was on display was classic Byrd.

Byrd, the third-longest serving individual in Congressional history, rarely misses an opportunity to break out his signature poetic and literary references. And it didn’t take too long for him to deviate slightly from his prepared remarks to invoke the opening lines of a 19th-century poem by Elizabeth Akers Allen about going back in time. “Make me a child again just for tonight,” he quotes wistfully.

At 87, the former Senate Majority Leader is as courtly as ever. He is eminently gracious. He stands to greet attendees at the event. He is the last person into the elevator when it’s time to leave — and with Byrd, you get the sense that ladies always go first.

Then there’s that legendary constancy. He is nearly an hour late for his own book reception and reading because Byrd, who passed the 17,000 mark in April 2004, didn’t want to miss that Tuesday evening’s 6:30 p.m. vote. He still has an ever-present copy of the Constitution tucked inside his breastpocket. This one, he notes proudly, also includes the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence and “several other historical documents.”

“I never let the Constitution go,” he says. “The Bible and the Constitution in that order.”

But for all his durability, Byrd is also frail. He shakes when taking out his spectacles to read. He uses a cane to walk. Byrd, once dubbed the “Seven-Day Senator,” pauses at various interludes just a bit too long. As the evening winds down, sometime after 8 p.m., the fatigue is beginning to show. His eyelids close briefly when answering a question during an interview and for a moment he appears almost asleep. [IMGCAP(1)]

Telling His Story

The buzz that night among West Virginia University Press officials was about how well the West Virginia-centric book, which understandably has a rather parochial appeal, was doing. That day, it had shot up to a respectable 405 on the Amazon.com rankings (although by press time Monday it had dropped to 3,161), and the day before at an event at West Virginia University in Morgantown, it did $11,000 in sales (all proceeds from the book will go to the university).

The story of Byrd’s life, from his earliest hardscrabble days growing up as the adoptive son of a coal miner to his rise in state politics and his eventual elevation to the highest echelons of the U.S. Senate, reads more like a personal diary, although it’s hardly a particularly juicy dish even by Washington standards.

Aside from Byrd’s recounting of his past organizing efforts on behalf of the KKK during the 1940s which has been criticized for brushing over certain details (the inclusion also landed him on the front page of The Washington Post about a week ago), there are few anecdotes likely to be rehashed in the gossip columns.

Instead, hundreds of subheadings ranging from the mundane (“Pushes Sale of Synthetic Rubber Plant”) to the relatively anomalous (“Fiddle Gets Smashed”) break the hefty tome into manageable chunks of a few paragraphs to a few pages. At 770 pages (excluding a highly detailed, almost literary index, which goes on for another 45 pages), the reader is treated to the highlights of Byrd’s 50-plus-year Congressional career interjected between his musings on capital punishment (he once witnessed an execution), appropriations (just about every project he’s channeled funds to gets a mention), personal quirks (such as his April 1989 renunciation of the tuxedo as evening wear), and numerous awards received (he was West Virginian of the 20th Century), among others.

It’s no surprise then that West Virginia University Press Director and Editor Patrick Conner says the first draft of the book was 1,700 double-spaced manuscript pages. Byrd, who either wrote or dictated every word himself, was urged to trim the word count. “He did,” deadpans Conner, noting that the press itself left 200 to 300 pages on the chopping block. “He made some excisions then added another chapter.”

Notably, one of the most far-reaching national crises in the past half century — the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — doesn’t even figure into the main book. Instead, it is included in a two-paragraph “Afterword” that also rehashes Byrd’s opposition to the Iraq war. “Not one of the nineteen hijackers was an Iraqi,” he writes in criticizing what he calls “Bush’s War.”

Other inclusions are notable in retrospect. For instance, Byrd includes a section on his opposition to the nomination of L. Patrick Gray, the former acting FBI director, whose name has once again gained currency after the revelation that his deputy, W. Mark Felt, was the legendary Watergate source Deep Throat. Then there is the largely forgotten detail that Byrd’s inaugural Senatorial bid was almost derailed by a fatal car accident. The incident occurred when then-Rep. Byrd was driving with fellow Democratic Senatorial hopeful Jennings Randolph (both Senate seats in West Virginia were up in 1958) and Randolph, who was behind the wheel, fell asleep, crashing the car into an oncoming vehicle and killing its driver. Byrd, who had acquired the car only a few weeks before, could have had it even worse, he notes. Just days before the accident, one of his daughters had found a half-filled whisky bottle, belonging to the previous owner, under one of the seats.

Hometown Crowd

When he finishes his book reading at the National Archives on Tuesday, a queue of attendees forms to meet the former President Pro Tem of the Senate. There is no booksigning — just as there was no signing at the kickoff event the day before, though books with autographed nameplates are available for purchase.

Instead, Byrd has a friendly handshake or a “bless your heart” for those who have waited their turn for a moment with the third-longest serving Member of Congress. Among the well-wishers is 90-year-old Helen Holt, widow of the late Sen. Rush Holt (D-W.Va.) and a former West Virginia secretary of state, and her grandson Rush Holt Seale. “Sen. Byrd had the biggest Sunday school in the state,” she recalls, adding that her husband once served as a guest speaker. “He’s a student of the Bible. He really knows it. He doesn’t just talk about it like some people,” Holt says of Byrd.

Nearby, the pretty nonagenarian’s son, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), is bantering with the Senator. The prolific Byrd, who has also published books on the Roman and U.S. Senates, tells him to check out last year’s release, “Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.”

“He’s an inspiration to me,” Byrd says while gesturing toward Holt, who, in turn, shoots back: “I think he’s got it backwards.”

Byrd says he wants his book to inspire young people. So when 9-year-old Zachary Freese, sporting a jersey, wire-rim glasses and a crewcut, steps up to shake the octogenarian Senator’s hand, Byrd takes extra time to encourage the young boy. He pats his head. Asks him about his favorite subjects. Tells him to study hard.

Freese, who later says he’ll “try” to have a career in politics,” is accompanied by his parents, both West Virginia University graduates. His mother, Martha, tells Byrd she is a teacher. She worries about the excessive influence, and the attendant responsibilities, her profession carries with it.

“He’s picking out toothpaste based on what I said,” she says of one of her students, who at her urging now buys only those brands that feature the American Dental Association label.

“Whew, you’re a good teacher,” the ever-polite Byrd replies.

No End in Sight

Byrd and his beloved state aren’t nearing the end of their journey together. “It’s been a road that’s uphill, but West Virginia and I have both traveled it together. … And it’s not finished, we are not finished traveling yet, the Lord willing,” he says.

Asked whether this means he’s definitively running for re-election in 2006, Byrd, who aides assert has every intention of doing so, says simply: “I’ve yet to announce it.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping to entice Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a woman whose father, a former West Virginia governor, once managed the Senate campaign of Byrd’s Republican opponent in his 1982 Senate re-election bid, to run against him.

Does Byrd see any irony in that?

“I hadn’t thought about it,” he says in his slow southern drawl. “I’m not thinking about her. I’m still working for West Virginia. I don’t let a day go by that I don’t pray for West Virginia.”

At this hour, it seems the only woman he’s thinking of is the one he’s shared his life with for the past 68 years: his wife. It’s been a long day, he says, but now it’s time to “[go] home to see Erma.”