Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sinner Byrd

It used to kill me the way Robert C. Byrd's West Virginia Baptists used to address him.

"Sinner Byrd, won't you come in?"

"Sinner Byrd, are you goin' ta vote for this bill?"

"Sinner Byrd, did you bring your fiddle?"

It was the accent, of course, because nothing about Bob Byrd suggested a predilection to sinning. He was an upright man, a stalwart Baptist.

He was, in fact, an American Baptist, though when I interviewed him in 1975 I suspected he had no idea what kind of Baptist he was. He was a member of Crab Orchard Baptist Church in Crab Orchard, W.Va., and Bill Withers - his pastor in the 1970s - said the senator actually attended church on occasion. When he was in Washington, Byrd called home.

"Folks'd come to church Sunday morning and I'd hear them whisper to to each other, 'Bob called last night,'" Bill reported. "He was always checking on his friends - to see how one was coping with an illness, how another was dealing with an injury on the job."

That kind of caring may have been politically prudent for a senator, but it was also down home Baptist. (Down home, Byrd probably pronounced it, Babtist.)

In January 1975, Robert Byrd accepted an invitation to address the meeting of American Baptist laymen that summer in Atlantic City. As the recently appointed editor of The American Baptist Magazine (I was 29 that year), I called and asked Byrd for an interview. Someone in his office called back and said, "Y'all come."

I headed to Washington with a modest sense that I was about to brush shoulders with history. The nation's capital was undergoing major change: the Watergate scandal had ripped the nation apart, and the Washington subway system was being built. I thought the rubble in Washington streets was a wonderful metaphor, and in my youthful enthusiasm I overwrote my article, burying the lead beneath several paragraphs:

Post-Watergate Washington, like a war-torn capital, is in a period of reconstruction.

The first evidence of the rebuilding process is physical. The main streets of the city are torn up with the construction of a long-awaited subway system, and most of Washington's best known landmarks are undergoing a major facelifting for next year's bicentennial celebration. Even the rotunda of the Capitol, where the bodies of Presidents have lain in state, is obscured by latticed scaffolding, and the once awesome stillness of the dome is shaken by muffled jackhammers.

Two paragraphs later, I got to the point of the article: Robert Byrd. First elected to the Senate in 1958, Byrd had wrestled the job of Senate Majority Whip from Edward M. Kennedy (later his political ally) in 1971.

The offices of high-ranking Congressional leaders are cavernous, ornate, and hard to find, and I made several wrong turns on the way to the Majority Whip’s office. The office anteroom is (or was then) cluttered with long coffee tables and thickly padded arm chairs. I quickly calculated the square-footage of the room as exceeding that of my townhouse.

Byrd was at lunch when I arrived in the office and an aide directed me to one of the padded chairs. I settled in, studied my notes, and looked around, wondering whose historic posteriors had preceded mine to the chair. In my mind's eye I saw a ghostly LBJ sitting in the chair opposite me, leaning forward intently, his finger jabbing the air.

But my mind didn't wander long. Byrd walked in quietly, moving a little stiffly I thought, and extended his hand. His grasp was so light I wondered if his hand hurt and I hesitated to squeeze back. He nodded in a courtly manner and smiled.

"Bob Byrd," he said, barely audible.

"It's an honor to meet you, Senator," I said. He glanced at my empty chair and I took it as an offer to be seated.

I have no recollection what I asked him that day, although my article in the April 1975 issue of The American Baptist suggests the topics were predictable: Watergate, morality, faith, presidential ambition. Byrd's answers were obviously better than my questions. Those who have seen an aging Byrd lampooned on The Daily Show as a Foghorn P. Leghorn coot may be surprised at his carefully weighed comments, which I recall were delivered in slow, measured tones.

On Watergate: "We're not morally bankrupt as a nation because of Watergate. Watergate involved a very small handful of individuals, most of whom had never gone before the electorate."
On determining right from wrong in politics: "I would imagine it's pretty hard, always, to see a pitfall ahead. One just has to try to do what he thinks is right. If he has the right kind of upbringing and has lived in a home where the principles of honesty, patriotism and doing right have been taught, he will probably come out all right in the end." 
On being discouraged about a career: "I wouldn't advise young people to desist from pursuing any responsible endeavor just because a few people in that particular field make failures of themselves. I wouldn't discourage a young medical student from pursuing a career in medicine just because of a few quacks. I wouldn't discourage a young law student from pursuing a career in law just because of a few charlatans. And I wouldn't discourage a young minister from pursuing that high calling just because there have been some false men and women who have stood in the pulpit. We find these people in every walk of life who have failed and disappointed others and who have not kept the faith. It isn't just in politics where this has been found, it's only that it has been more recent and it has been more publicized." 
On Presidential Ambition: "Any man or woman in politics has the ambition to go as far as he or she can possibly go. I don't know how far I can go. I haven't reached the age or point in life where I feel that I've gone as far as I can. I don't know whether I shall go any farther or not, but I feel if the opportunity should come, I can do whatever duty is involved in that particular assignment. I believe that when one goes beyond the office of a United States Senator, one gets into an area that is much larger than one's own capabilities or personal planning. I have long held the view that somehow this is beyond the individual. Some, I suppose, feel that by accident they may go farther. Others may ascribe it to destiny or fate. But it seems to me there is some good reason to believe that one does not project oneself into the highest of offices purely on the basis of his own strengths. He has to have some strength and qualities and attributes. But I think what I'm saying is that one is not always the master of one's own fate."
Later that year, I sat in on Senator Byrd's address to the American Baptist Men luncheon in Atlantic City. The banquet room was packed. When he finished, men and women formed a line that extended out the room and down the hall, each hoping to have a word with the Senator and to ask him sign their programs. The line took over an hour to dissipate, in part because Byrd had a slight motor dysfunction in his right hand that caused him to make several labored circles with his pen before pressing the nib to paper. I stood behind him like an ex officio press aide, watching his many admirers reach out to him. (The photograph above is from that event; I'm the young chubby guy behind the Senator.) Byrd stood patiently, smiling and signing, and only when the last person had departed did he turn to me.

"Would you care for some coffee in the press room?" I asked.

"All right," he said quietly, and followed me out of the room. He was not particularly charismatic, and when we walked together up the hallway I don't believe anyone recognized him.

I wonder if most of the people who waited in line for his autograph were hedging a bet that Robert C. Byrd might one day take advantage of his strengths and qualities and attributes and become a president of the United States. What a souvenir his bold signature would be, then!

Of course it never happened. When Bob Byrd died early this week at the age of 92, he was regarded by some as a distantly comic figure in Washington, ranting on CSpan against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, weeping copiously when Ted Kennedy died, scolding the Senate for its lack of decorum and ignorance of its own history.

Even so, I thought Robert Byrd may even have transcended the nation's highest office. He was honest. He had integrity. He had faith. He was the longest serving senator in history. He cast thousands of votes that were, for the most part, an effort to advance peace, justice, morality, prosperity, domestic tranquility and common sense.

How many presidents can match that record?


  1. Loved the picture. Those were the days my friend when the ABC took risks and confronted the "powers and principalities." I was watching a slide show at Keira Denning's house on the occasion of her graduation from high school the other day. Since Susan serves as a surrogate grandmother we were in a lot of the pictures. I commented that while it was fun watching her grow up it was frightening to watch us grow up and out!

  2. Terry, how well I know! My youngest thought it was hilarious that I was present when the Washington subway was built, which she reckons happened at about the time the Washington Monument was built.