Special Column: Gentility and iron — the legacy of Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.

Posted: August 17, 2013

During what he later described as the “night of a lifetime,” Harry F. Byrd Jr. was joyful. There was good reason for the broad smile that connected his apple-colored cheeks on Nov. 3, 1970, as he watched the returns roll in, received congratulations, thanked supporters, and tugged the arms of well-wishers in the exuberant, pumping manner that was his trademark handshake.

A solid majority of Virginians — nearly 54 percent — had re-elected him to the U.S. Senate. The occurrence would have been unremarkable but for a single circumstance: Byrd had run with no political party affiliation. Only once before, and then only by a slim plurality, had a U.S. senator been elected as an independent, and pundits had given Byrd little chance of repeating the accomplishment. “Young Harry is out of step [with Virginia] . . .” Time magazine had commented seven months earlier. “[His] chances are poor, and Byrd may well finish third in a three-way race.”

Looking back now, aided by hindsight, it is easy to laugh at Time. It’s easy, too, to render judgments on Harry Byrd Jr.’s body of work. When one lives nearly a century, spends more than three decades of it in ardent public service, and also is heir to the feats and foibles of illustrious forebears, including stewardship of a political organization that dominated state politics and government for more than half a century, there is a lot for which to answer.

One salutary legacy is the tradition of fiscal responsibility that continues to impact Virginia’s policies — and, regrettably to a far lesser extent, the nation’s. Young Americans likely will not be told about the Byrdian voices (Jr. and Sr.) that relentlessly cried in the wilderness about the dangers of federal debt. But those young people’s economic opportunities will, at the very least, be diminished because today’s shortsighted partisans failed to heed the warnings and put the country’s fiscal house in order.

Another vital lesson is the necessity of persevering in the preservation of national security over the long haul. Harry Byrd Jr., who met Churchill as a young boy and held him in lifelong esteem, came of age during a time when a war-weary America’s weakness and isolationism invited Nazi and Imperial Japanese aggression, resulting in the massacre of millions.

Sen. Byrd’s public service paralleled what JFK called the “long twilight struggle” against Communism; and because they and others of their generation refused to yield, the Cold War at length was won. While the face of the threat changes, the need for steadfastness in the defense of our freedom — “peace through strength”— remains.

There is also the matter of exemplary conduct in the public sphere, something for which the Byrd family and political machinery were, for generations, generally known. Indeed, the two words most often used to describe Harry Byrd Jr., not just in recent retrospectives but throughout his life, were “gentleman” and “integrity.” One could hardly aspire in life to greater accolades in death. And one has only to read the daily headlines to see that the body politic sorely needs a positive exemplar of an honorable public life, impeccably executed.

Less exemplary, as the political obituaries amply have attested, is the Byrd record in matters of inclusion. There is simply no getting around the fact that Harry Byrd Jr. was one of those politicians a half-century ago who was willing to sacrifice civil rights on the altar of states’ rights, and to sacrifice individual aspirations to social stability. Times change and so do people, but errors on things that matter cast long shadows.

In the founding era and first half of the 19th century, the issue that many otherwise laudable leaders badly blew was slavery; in the early 20th century it was Jim Crow; and on Byrd’s watch it was Massive Resistance. Rather than cast judgment, which is fashionable but largely fruitless, we might take the opportunity to reflect.

Seeing the long shadows cast on the reputations of good men who placed themselves on the wrong side of history, perhaps we will want to search for our own blind spots. Where are we today sacrificing principle to passion — following the crowd rather than our conscience? How will history judge us?

Of the rich and full legacy that Sen. Byrd has left us, volumes could be written. But the thing that will stand out in the history books is the political feat consummated on Election Day in 1970. More than a single winning campaign, it was a harbinger of things to come — notably, the rise of political independence.

The senator’s March 17, 1970, announcement that he would stand for reelection as an independent was rooted in principle. “I would rather be a free man than a captive senator,” he declared then, repudiating the Democratic Party’s loyalty oath.

The St. Patrick’s Day timing might have suggested reliance on luck — the move was a huge political gamble — but Byrd’s famous Virginia family had succeeded in politics and other pursuits, from newspapers and orchards to exploring and electioneering, by relying more on canny calculations. And, without question, the senator’s move was calculated.

Sen. Byrd understood that the old era of one-party domination in Virginia — rule by the conservative Democratic organization that bore his father’s name — was at an end, and that a new era of vigorous two-party competition was at hand.

He saw, too, that realignment was underway; the inverted Virginia political order was beginning to right itself as the state parties came more into line philosophically with their national counterparts. He shrewdly judged that getting himself reelected by all of political Virginia in the fall would be easier than getting himself renominated by Democratic Party activists in the summer.

Most important, Sen. Byrd saw that party labels were declining in importance, not only in Virginia and the South but among younger, suburban, and “blue-collar” voters across the country. He calculated that, amid the shifting party identities and eroding party loyalties of Virginia voters, the Byrd name, record, and philosophy would be a welcome constant.

Byrd not only perceived the emergence of more independent-minded voting in Virginia; he became a catalyst for it. Like a jetliner cruising safely above the clouds while storms rage below, he assumed a transcendent posture in Virginia politics for the remainder of his senatorial career and beyond. The not-so-subtle message to Virginia voters was that political parties don’t matter all that much.

No one in the political establishment was very happy with Byrd’s posture. Republicans, with whom he often made common cause at election time, were frustrated by his refusal to declare allegiance and thereby cement their party’s apparent electoral majority. Their frustration, however, was insufficient to generate a GOP opponent when Byrd again faced the voters six years later — and became the first sitting independent senator to be reelected.

Democrats were mad that he had jilted them, and his routine departures from the party line in the Senate frequently brought denunciations from the Democratic base. Their anger, however, was insufficient to keep the ruling Senate Democrats from preserving his plum committee assignments or to keep the Democratic National Committee from donating both to Byrd and his Democratic opponent in the 1976 re-election contest.

“[O]ur most secure politician is Harry Byrd Jr., and one of the reasons he is secure is that he is disentangled from the political parties,” commented Charles McDowell, the sage columnist for The Times-Dispatch, in the 1980s.

“He is the genius of our age,” McDowell wrote, “because he learned, ahead of most Americans, that the two political parties are sinking — that they are less and less effective and have less and less power. And he got disentangled fast. Now he has the best of all worlds. He sits in the Democratic caucus, gets good committee assignments from the Democrats, supports the Democrats on organizational issues, and then votes with the Republicans. He doesn’t ever have to run in primaries or take sides in factional fights. He just runs in one nice general election as the Byrd candidate.”

One must be careful not to draw broad conclusions from Byrd’s ability to gain and maintain his lofty independent perch. His success was partly a product of a unique time of transition in Virginia politics and of Virginians’ particular affection for the Byrds. Yet, for a person who grew up steeped in party politics, whose esteemed father had devoted his life to it, and who possessed a keen awareness of the pervasive role the party system plays in Washington as well as the hinterlands, his declaration of independence that March 17 was a stunningly bold leap.

Few have been so bold since. And although Americans yearn for an alternative to partisan gridlock and respite from the ever more distasteful harangues from the fringes, the deck remains stacked against independent candidacies. Whether Byrd’s successful gambit will prove to be one of the earliest heralds of an epochal partisan decline in America or merely a brief, albeit impressive, aberration, history will disclose later.

We need not wait on history, however, for a verdict on the man. He was a wonderful person.

Even after he retired from public office in 1983, Sen. Byrd continued to serve his commonwealth and community in many important ways for three decades — a “retirement” nearly as long as his period of public service. During this time he received visitors warmly, shared his political experiences in remarkable writings and poignant conversations, and dispensed keen insights to all who sought them, from grandchildren to governors. He was also exceedingly generous, especially to his alma maters, VMI and U.Va.

He remained interested, first and foremost, in young people. Having endowed the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. Leadership Awards two decades ago and left the annual selections to others, the affable former senator would travel to Richmond each spring to greet the winning students personally, dispensing scholarship checks that in many cases were desperately needed and invariably were deeply appreciated.

The recipients were a mosaic of modern Virginia — young women and men of varied means, regions, ethnicities, and interests — all having records that evidenced academic vigor, character, and an aptitude for leadership. The senator would latch onto a distinctive fact about each of the young people, share it with the audience, and then watch as the students and their proud parents beamed.

Except perhaps for the evening of March 17, 1970 — and any time he was with his adoring family — his joy on those occasions was unsurpassed.

To a recent visitor at his home on the hill in Winchester, Sen. Byrd pointed out that portraits of his two “heroes” were visible from the ends of the dining room table. From one end, one could spy Churchill’s visage; from the other, Sen. Harry Byrd Sr.’s.

The elder Byrd and his son shared a name, a tradition, many political views, and an abiding love of Virginia. They also shared a character articulated by none so well as the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, Republican of Illinois:

“There are gentle men in whom gentility finally destroys whatever of iron there was in their souls. There are iron men in whom the iron corroded whatever gentility they possessed. There are men — not many to be sure — in whom the gentility and the iron were preserved in proper balance, each of these attributes to be summoned up as the occasion requires. Such a man was Harry Byrd.”

Frank B. Atkinson, a Richmond attorney, is author of two books on Virginia politics, “The Dynamic Dominion” and “Virginia in the Vanguard.” This commentary first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.