Review by James Hawley
The Last Great Senator: Robert C. ByrdEncounters with Eleven U.S. Presidents by David A. Corbin, Potomac Books, 2012, ISBN-13 978-1612344997, 388 pp., $34.96 (list), $24.33 (Amazon), $19.49 (Kindle).
David Corbin has written a succinct, fast paced narrative of Senator Robert Byrd’s long full life in the Congress; more specifically his 51 year Senate career (1959-2010). During that half century, Senator Byrd dealt with eleven U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama.
Using those incumbencies as a chronological framework, Corbin describes Byrd’s increasingly central role in the crises, triumphs, tragedies, conflicts and other powerful events that mark each President’s office.
Corbin illuminates Byrd’s singularly disadvantaged background, steel ambition and genuine achievement despite strong odds against political success. In a political world characterized by wealthy worldly politicians and a sophisticated, cynical press from the coasts, he sustained his unapologetic advocacy of West Virginia, a state often portrayed as an anachronistic backwoods backwater, something of a joke.
Also Byrd followed an unswerving approach to the greatest issues before the Senate based on profound faith in the Bible and the Constitution. He was poorly educated as a youth, but read and studied his way to bachelors and law degrees, at the same time his political career proceeded.
Critics and competitors perceived Byrd as pedantic, tedious, dogged, and obsessed with parliamentary minutiae. But political opponents and observers often regretted underestimating him. His drive, his management skill, his knowledge of history and the Senate’s arcane procedures, and his ability to see the big picture took him to leadership in the Senate and in the nation, including as Democratic Senate majority leader (1977-81; 1987-89).
Corbin’s book traces Senator Byrd’s wins and losses in intense political combat with Republican and Democratic opponents alike. Three dramatic examples stand out. Byrd labored throughout his career with the burden of his mid-1940's Ku Klux Klan membership. According to Corbin and other sources, this reflected his populist views as a young man that the West Virginia coal miners need some unifying organization to fight the iron domination of coal\companies and their political allies. But it is also clear that he shared some of the anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, segregationist views of the Klan. Further he saw the Klan as a vehicle for his own advancement. In later years he disowned that membership, expressing deep regret and repeated explicit apology. But in the Senate he vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act because he though some of its provisions were unconstitutional, anathema in his mind, regardless of the issue. But he professed a profound change of heart and supported later Civil Rights legislation. Corbin makes clear his belief that Byrd’s new view was sincere.
Although Byrd worked with Richard Nixon on many issues, he was deeply disturbed by the evolving Watergate case. In hearings on advice and consent for L. Patrick Grey as FBI Director, Byrd examined Grey about exactly what happened in his interaction with WH counsel John Dean. As Corbin describes the intense, dramatic exchange, Byrd asked Grey whether Dean had lied about White House interference in an FBI investigation. Grey admitted that Dean had probably lied.
Famously, the White House left Grey to “twist in the wind.” That admission broke open the steel shell around the White House. As history knows, Nixon and that staff were clearly felons. Byrd strongly opposed President Ford’s pardon of Nixon.
The second example is the Clinton case. Given his rigid moral code, Byrd was deeply disgusted by Clinton’s behavior. Because of Clinton’s alleged perjury, he supported the preliminary investigation in the House to indict Clinton. Nevertheless he balked at the notion that Clinton should be expelled from office if convicted. He thought that was a violation of Constitutional separation of powers.
Finally and perhaps most telling in Corbin’s vivid account of Byrd’s position on the Viet Nam and Iraqi wars. As with many Senators, based on the Johnson administration’s urgent appeal, Byrd voted for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. He later said that based on later revelations that the American ships had not been attacked and the war’s disastrous record, he deeply regretted that vote. When the George W. Bush administration, the Senate, and the American people were strongly influenced by the notion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Byrd was very dubious. He spoke and voted against the authorizing resolution. If readers wish to see Senator Byrd, aged and afflicted with essential tremor, in action, see his March 19, 2003 speech on You Tube, which includes the words, “I weep for my country”, spoken from his heart.
The press called him a hick, a hillbilly, a throwback, but Senator Byrd steered straight ahead. He was called the King of Pork because of his strong and successful advocacy of more federal aid to West Virginia, mainly because the state had been ignored as the decline of coal and industry led to more and more desperate poverty.
Corbin does not point out that in the days of rampant earmarks, many other Congressional delegations garnered much more for their states. To this day, West Virginia has no major defense plants or military bases. He advanced in the Senate because of his almost mystical devotion to the institution and encyclopedic knowledge of its rules. Further he was a scholar of the Senate, publishing award-winning histories of the institution in addition to his own memoirs, which some would read as rather self-serving.
Two comments: First, Corbin says precious little about Byrd’s personal life. He mentions several times that Byrd’s devotion to his political career interfered with his family but nothing further is said. It appears that his family life was happy but one suspects Corbin would say that is none of our business.
Second, this reviewer takes great exception to the repeated phrase “hillbilly philosophy.” What does that mean? Being from Wheeling, West Virginia, I know “hillbilly” well because there was a famous hillbilly radio station in the 30s and 40s. But now it is perceived as a pejorative term for a know-nothing world of white liquor, rusted pickups, and dark gun sight hollers. Byrd came from that world but he was an authentic student of the classics and of history, a genuinely educated man. He often quoted Greek and Roman history in his floor speeches, sometimes to the despair of his colleagues. I just do not agree that his approach to American and world politics was “hillbilly” in any way.
Corbin’s book is a well written but rather a bare bones, stripped, sometimes dry narrative, listing legislation, meetings etc. I was pleased to note that he plans a more complete biography. Certainly this book and his years of working with Senator Byrd qualify him to do that.
“Senators on both sides of the aisle are abusing the rules of this house!”
In closing let me cite a personal memory of Senator Byrd. In 1977, as a State Department budget officer, this reviewer was in the Senate Vice President’s office with several others following the perennially doomed Foreign Aid Bill. The proceedings were broadcast in the offices and corridors. On the Session’s final day, the floor was stuck with over 100 bills to pass. In the late afternoon, Majority Leader Byrd stopped everything and unleashed in cold fury a brutal tongue-lashing including the quote above. The Senate building was silent. Later I met him in my hometown of Wheeling and mentioned that impassioned speech. He smiled and said something like, “Yes, that was a long, hard day.”
Robert C. Byrd was a singularly effective and unique legislator and statesman at the center of the Congress and of the nation’s affairs. And he was an unmatchable political character; you could not make him up. David Corbin clearly sees him as a great Senator and a great man. He has done us all a favor in describing his life career with brevity and clarity.