I first met Senator Byrd shortly after I was sworn in for my first term as a U.S. senator from South Dakota. It was January 1973.
I knew Senator Byrd was from Beckley, West Virginia, because that is where my older sister, Helen Ramey, lived. When I was in elementary school in South Dakota, I started going to Beckley in the summers to stay with her. It was a way for my parents to get me out of their hair for a month or two. I also knew that, when he was younger, Sen. Byrd had worked as a butcher in my cousin, Fred Mickel’s, small grocery store in Beckley. I had also heard that Senator Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan when he was younger.
He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served a few terms before running for the U.S. Senate. Senator Byrd proved himself a very hard worker, which served him well in his political career. I found out that he used to set aside a certain amount of time each evening, when his work in the Senate was done for the day, to call a few people in West Virginia personally, introducing himself and asking how things were going in the area where the constituent lived.
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he made certain that West Virginia got its share of federal money, an activity now called “earmarking”—but back then it was called, “representing your state or your district.” His being a somewhat poor state, Senator Byrd’s earmarking was greatly appreciated by his constituents, so much so that he was re-elected time after time, for a record number of terms in the Senate.
It was said that he always knew where the bodies were buried with respect to Senate politics, which is why he ultimately ran for, and was elected to be, Majority Leader of the Senate after Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana retired. That was a traumatic election, to say the least. Not long after Senator Mansfield retired, the campaign to replace him began in earnest. Everyone knew that Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), Senator Byrd and Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina were going for the prize.
I was conflicted in a major way. Senator Humphrey was a friend, someone who had helped me when I decided to run for the U.S. Senate. (Humphrey was originally a pharmacist in South Dakota, where he was born and raised.) I was leery of supporting Senator Byrd because of his Ku Klux Klan background. That prompted me to call Senator Hollings to tell him that I supported him for Leader. I was told that he had to make a trip to China first before he would finally decide whether or not to run for the position.
While he was gone, the pressure from the Humphrey and Byrd camps was coming down heavy on the mostly undeclared senators. The liberal Democats, of course, liked Hubert Humphrey, as did I. But I also was aware that Hubert was the leader of the “Israeli Mafia,” as I called them, in the Senate. I did not want to see the strong supporters of Israel gain even more power in the Senate. When Senator Hollings returned from China I called him and asked him to hurry and announce his candidacy. He begged off, saying he could not run under the then-current circumstances.
So I called Senator Byrd and asked for a meeting with him. When we met, I told him that I was of a mind to support him, but that I wanted him to promise to support a couple of issues in which I was interested. I wanted to create a stand-alone Indian Affairs Committee. I asked for a seat on the Steering Committee, which names other senators to the substantive committees, such as appropriations, foreign relations, judiciary, etc. He agreed to each of my requests, so I agreed to support him.
He wanted to issue a press release immediately, for the obvious reason that announcement of my support would bring some of the liberal senators with me. As he issued the statement of support, the deadlock was broken, and the liberal senators, afraid of Senator Byrd as I had been, broke for him, giving him enough votes to win as Majority Leader.
He kept all of his promises to me, and we got along fine until I led the filibuster against the bill de-regulating natural gas in 1977. The Majority Leader controls the Senate—unless, that is, someone is filibustering, and that person takes control of the floor away from the Leader. Senator Byrd was understandingly not happy with what Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) and I were doing. During the standoff, a great many bitter words were spoken back and forth, and it appeared that my friendship with Senator Byrd had come to an end.
But a few weeks after the filibuster ended, Senator Byrd approached me and invited me to meet with him in his private office. He said that he was inviting the Democratic senators to a dinner, and that he would entertain with his excellent fiddle playing. He then asked me if I would back him up with my guitar. I readily agreed. Although he was way above my class of guitar playing, I took it as a way for us to renew a friendship.
After I left the Senate, I watched, on television, what Senator Byrd had become. He led the fight against the Iraq war, giving speeches that were brilliant in their analysis with respect to how our country would be injured by virtue of our invasion of Iraq. On more than one occasion I witnessed him dressing down the Israeli Lobby on the Senate Floor, something that no one had done since both Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR) and I left the Senate.
Senator Byrd gave more than one eloquent speech outlining what the U.S. Constitution meant when it came to entering battle against invented enemies. He became, in short, someone who would be described as a liberal, although if he was a liberal, he was one with courage, something that modern day liberals tragically lack.
What has impressed me more than anything about my friend is the way he grew, intellectually and morally, into what a United States senator—and more, what an American citizen—should be. Someone who has the courage of his or her convictions, who is not afraid to express them without regard to the political consequences.
We have seen this all before, that a U.S. senator will speak out on an issue, causing a great deal of controversy, but with time, the nation sees the correctness of his or her position. That kind of senator is disappearing rapidly, to the great misfortune of our country. Sen. George McGovern (D-MN), Senator Fulbright and Senator Byrd come to mind as exceptions to the general rule.
Robert Byrd was a senator who started his adult life as a Klansman, but who educated himself on how to make the world a better place for all of us to live in. He went to night law school when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He educated himself on the U.S. Constitution, on its war powers, and on how senators could best serve their country. We are sorely lacking this kind of dedication and this kind of patriotism. We can only hope that some young person, one with an interest in politics, will be inspired by Senator Byrd’s example. That kind of person is sorely needed by our country.
James Abourezk is a former U.S. Senator, who practices law in Sioux Falls. He is the author of Advise & Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the US Senate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article will appear in the upcoming September 2010 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.