“Hear me now”: Thank You, Senator Byrd, and Farewell
I do not pretend to be able to do justice to the 50-year career of United States Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia – the good, the bad, or the ugly – having witnessed only a fraction of it from a distance. But Senator Byrd’s dedicated public service in and, especially, on behalf of the institution established to self-govern this nation, for almost a quarter of the time our Constitutional Republic has existed, speaks volumes on its own.
Note, though, how some of those who knew him best – those with whom he served – remember him:
[Senator Byrd] had no use for narrow partisanship that trades on attack and values only victory.
"I have lived with the weight of my own youthful mistakes my whole life, like a millstone around my neck," [Senator Byrd] wrote in 2008. "And I accept that those mistakes will forever be mentioned when people talk about me. I believe I have learned from those mistakes. I know I’ve tried very hard to do so."
– Senator Kerry, yesterday, June 30, 2010
Though obviously a reference in part to his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and his associated hostility to the rights of African-Americans as a young man, if Senator Byrd’s passionate opposition to the invasion of Iraq was in part a response to the lessons he learned from his earlier strong support for the Vietnam War, it appears those words written in 2008 honestly represented his deeds.
Mr. CARDIN. […] Senator BYRD’s modest beginnings in the hard-scrabble coal fields of Appalachia are well known. After his mother died during the 1918 flu pandemic [when he was about a year old], Senator BYRD went to live with an aunt and uncle who adopted him and raised him in a house without running water or electricity. He pumped gas and butchered hogs. During World War II, he was a welder and built cargo ships in Baltimore and Tampa Bay. After the war, he successfully ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates and, 4 years later, the State’s senate, before entering Congress in 1953.
Senator Byrd married his high school sweetheart, Erma Ora James, shortly after they both graduated from Mark Twain High School–where he was valedictorian–in 1937. He was too poor to afford college right away and wouldn’t receive his degree from Marshall University until 60 years later–when he was 77. In between, he did something no other Member of Congress has ever done: he enrolled in law school–at American University–and in 10 years of part-time study while serving as a Member of Congress, he completed his law degree, which President John Kennedy presented to him. Senator BYRD was married to his beloved Erma for nearly 69 years, and was blessed with two daughters, six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
He steered the Panama Canal Treaty through the Senate and waged a lonely battle against the war in Iraq, leading an unsuccessful filibuster against the resolution granting President George W. Bush broad power to wage a preemptive war against Iraq. He claimed that his vote against the Iraq war resolution was the vote of which he was most proud [of] having cast over the course of his career. When U.S. military strikes on Iraq commenced on March 19, 2003, [Byrd] stated:
Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination.
Mr. CARPER. […] I was born in Beckley, WV, just about a dozen miles or so from a community called Sophia, which is where ROBERT and Erma BYRD once ran a little mom-and-pop supermarket back in the late 1930s, early 1940s. I think he was the butcher. He ran that supermarket and later on, I think, in World War II, he was a welder during the war. As we know, in the late 1940s he had the opportunity to run for the West Virginia Legislature and ran. He was a great fiddler and went around his community, his district, playing the fiddle. He always called himself a hillbilly.
Ironically, I was down in the central part of our State [Delaware] just about a month ago and had a chance to attend a picnic for senior citizens, a cookout. A lot of people were there. I was sitting at different tables and walking around. I was sitting at this one table, and I learned this lady sitting to my left was from West Virginia.
I said: Where are you from?
She said: Sophia.
I said: That’s right outside of Beckley, where I was born.
She said: Yes, I knew ROBERT and Erma BYRD when they ran that mom-and-pop supermarket.
I said: You’re kidding.
She said: No, I did.
I asked her to share some thoughts with me about it, and she did.
Two weeks later I was back in the Senate and Senator Byrd was coming in in a wheelchair. In the last part of his life he lost the ability to walk. He never lost his voice, never lost his mind either. But he came in, and I stopped to say hello to him, see how he was doing, and I said: Leader, I just met a woman over in Delaware the other day who knew you from your little supermarket in Sophia, WV.
I told him about it, and he smiled. He said: Do you remember her name? Do you remember her name?
Ironically, I could not remember it. But if I had, he would have. He was amazing.
More than anybody I know, for a guy who was born, orphaned in North Carolina as an infant, who was traded off by his mom in her last will and testament–she wanted him to be raised by her sister [per Senator Reed, actually his father’s sister] who lived in West Virginia, and her sister took this young man in. His name was not Robert Byrd. But she took in her nephew. She and her husband raised Robert Byrd in tough situations, hardscrabble situations, and he sort of raised himself by the bootstraps and worked hard all of his life to make something of his life and to serve as a model for us in the end, and a model for our country.
Mr. ROCKEFELLER. […] After his mother passed away, he was raised by his aunt and uncle, a coalminer he movingly called "the most remarkable man I have ever been privileged to know."
It was at Mark Twain High School where a lifetime of love first began for ROBERT C. BYRD and his future wife, Erma Ora James. Calling her the "wind beneath this byrd’s wings," as he put it, Senator Byrd was never shy to tell you that Erma–a beloved coal miner’s daughter herself–was the reason he reached all of his goals. He believed that with all of his heart. So from the fiddle-playing young man to a history-making American icon, she loved and supported him every step of the way until her passing in 2006.
I know and I observed maybe earlier than some that Senator Byrd lost just a bit when Erma died. Watching him hurting was painful. His wife died from the same disease my mother died from; that is, Alzheimer’s, and we talked about it, especially a few years ago when he was talking more frequently. I always felt bad that I could not give him comfort and that I could not say something to him that would relinquish his pain, which was evident and obvious–very obvious in privacy. But I could not do that because you cannot do that for diseases like that one. There were not words to describe the difficulty such a devastating loss can bring, and I commend my friend for continuing on so strongly–as he did–for so long.
Mr. DODD. […] I suspect I am one of a handful of people left who remember the day when I was 7 years old, in the gallery of the House of Representatives, watching my father be sworn in as a new Congressman, watching my father and a young 34-year-old West Virginian named ROBERT C. BYRD to be sworn in as a Member of the House on January 3, 1953. Seven years later, at the age of 14, I was in the gallery of this Chamber when I watched my father and his great friend be sworn in together on January 3, 1959, as Members of the Senate. Two years later, as a 16-year-old sitting on the very steps where these young pages sit today, in the summer of 1961, I worked with ROBERT C. BYRD. In fact, with his departure and his death, he is now the last remaining Member of the Senate who was there that day when I first arrived as a page in the summer of 1961 when all these chairs were filled by 100 Senators.
It won’t be the same for the remaining 6 or 7 months of my tenure here to not have this wonderful human being, ROBERT C. BYRD, as my seatmate in the Senate.
For the past quarter of a century I have occupied some prime real estate on the floor of the Senate. This desk right next to me today, adorned with these flowers and this black cape, marks the seat Robert C. Byrd sat in for many years. As have all of us, I have been awed by his deep knowledge of this institution and his deeper commitment to preserving its place in our legislative system.
He was a man unafraid of reflection, a man who voted to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a Federal holiday because, as he put it–I remember him saying it so well–"I’m the only one who must vote for this bill."
Mr. DURBIN. […] I once said to [Senator Byrd]: Of all these thousands and thousands of votes you have cast, are there any you would like to do over?
Oh, yes, he said. Three. There was one for an Eisenhower administration appointee which I voted against, and I wish I voted for him. I think that was a mistake. And, he said, I was wrong on the civil rights legislation. I voted the wrong way in the 1960s. And, he said, I made a mistake and voted for the deregulation of the airline industry which cut off airline service to my State of West Virginia. Those were three.
If you have been in public life or even if you have been on this Earth a while, I think you have learned the value of redemption. ROBERT C. BYRD, in his early life, made a mistake with his membership in the Ku Klux Klan. He was open about it, and he demonstrated in his life that he was wrong and would do better in the future. That is redemption–political redemption–and, in my mind, it was total honesty.
There were so many other facets to this man too. Senator Leahy talked about him playing the fiddle. That is the first time I ever saw him in person. He came to Springfield, IL, in 1976, when he was aspiring to run for President of the United States. He stood out from the rest of the crowd because he got up and said a few words about why he wanted to be President. Then he reached in and grabbed his fiddle and started playing it.
I tell you, it brought the house down. I don’t remember who else was there. I think Jimmy Carter was there. But I do remember that BOB BYRD was there.
When I came to the Senate, I thought: I cannot wait to see or hear him play that fiddle again. I learned that after his grandson died in an automobile accident, he said: I will never touch it again, in memory of my grandson.
Mr. ENZI. […] Besides a strong historical welcome, [Senator Byrd] presented each of us [incoming Senators] with one volume of his four-volume history of the Senate. If we read it and were able to answer questions about it, then–and only then–would we get the other three volumes. I remember asking him how he wrote them. He said he presented all of it as a series of floor speeches delivered without any notes, with most corrections made simply to clear up what the floor reporters thought they heard. He had a photographic memory, and that made it all possible. Perhaps it came from his years of study of the violin. In any event, it made him a better speaker because he spoke slowly and deliberately, carefully editing his sentences as he spoke. His style created a natural bond between himself and the listener, and that is what made him such a styled and gifted communicator.
It may be a cliche, but he was a southern gentleman through and through. He had no tolerance for any rude or impolite conduct on the floor. He instructed and expected all of us to be courteous and respectful–not because of politics but because of the great institution of which we are a part. He knew what a great honor and a privilege it is to serve in the Senate, and he expected everyone else to realize it as well and to act accordingly.
At our orientation, [Senator Byrd] encouraged us to learn the rules. Because of his encouragement and as a way to learn the rules, I volunteered often to chair the Senate floor. Following his instructions, I brought a list of questions with me since during the quorum calls you can ask questions of the captive-audience Parliamentarian.
I once saw a Senator come to the floor to debate an amendment, and Senator Byrd was there to debate against it. The Senator wanted to revise his amendment. For half an hour, the Senator tried different tactics to change his amendment, and Senator Byrd thwarted every attempt. The Senator was frustrated. He asked for a quorum call, and he left the floor.
At that point, I asked the Parliamentarian if there was any way the Senator could have changed his amendment. The Parliamentarian explained that all he had to do was declare his right to revise his amendment. I asked why the Parliamentarian did not tell him that. What I learned is the Parliamentarian can only give advice when asked. My first stop at the Senate floor often is at the Parliamentarian as a result.
Probably only once in the history of a country does someone like this come along.
Mr. DORGAN. […] Senator Byrd came to the floor, and he had a way with words that does not so much exist in the Senate anymore. I was sitting on the floor one day when another Senator came to the floor and said some very disparaging things about a President of the United States. They referred to the President in a way that was very disparaging. Senator Byrd did not like that, no matter who the President was. He came to the floor, and I am sure the person who was disparaging the President at that point never understood what had happened to him after Senator Byrd was done.
Mr. LEAHY. I remember that.
Mr. DORGAN. But Senator Byrd came to the floor, and he stood up, and he said this:
I have served here long enough to see pygmyies strut like Colossus. [And he said], very like the fly in Aesop’s fable, sitting on an axle of a chariot, "My, what dust I do raise."
And it occurred to me he had just told someone what they had done was unbelievably foolish. I am not sure they understood it. But he wrapped it in such elegant language, as he always did.
Today is a very sad day for those of us who see a desk that was occupied by a great U.S. Senator for so many decades, now occupied with a dozen roses and a black cloth, signifying that we have lost this great man. America has lost a great public servant. As one Member of the Senate, I say it has been a great privilege–my great privilege–to serve while Senator Byrd served in this body.
Mr. UDALL of New Mexico. […] What I will remember Senator Byrd for is his willingness to stand up and fight for what he believed in. Two of the most pressing issues of the past decade are perfect examples–the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the very beginning, Senator Byrd was a voice of opposition to the Iraq war. He delivered what will become one of his most memorable speeches in the days leading up to the Senate’s vote to authorize its funding. He spoke out against a war at a time when any opposition to the President’s path meant putting his own political future in jeopardy. But he did not waiver.
Eight years and thousands of American lives lost later, his words read as prophetic.
But he didn’t stop there. Last year–this time with his party holding the reins of power in both the White House and the Congress–he did the same thing. Seven years had passed, and Senator Byrd was older and more fragile than ever before. None of that stopped him from getting to the Senate floor that day. How did I know this? I had a front row seat as the presiding officer of the Senate that day.
This time, he questioned the proposed buildup of troops in Afghanistan–a proposal I myself had questioned many times as well. Here is what Senator Byrd said:
I have become deeply concerned that in the 8 years since the September 11 attacks, the reason for the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan has become lost, consumed in some broader scheme of nation-building which has clouded our purpose and obscured our reasoning.
… President Obama and the Congress must reassess and refocus on our original and most important objective–namely emasculating a terrorist network that has proved its ability to inflict harm on the United States.
Time will tell if Senator Byrd’s concerns about Afghanistan prove as prescient as those he expressed about Iraq almost a decade ago. Time also will tell if we heed those concerns.
What is clear is that Senator Byrd understood the importance of asking the tough questions, regardless of their impact on himself personally or professionally.
Mr. SCHUMER. […] So I relate my last strong memory of Senator Byrd. The Presiding Officer remembers as well because it was at a hearing of the Rules Committee where we are now having a series of hearings under the suggestion of the Presiding Officer [Senator Udall of NM] and leadership to decide whether we should reform the filibuster [cloture] rule and what we should do about it. Senator Byrd, frail at that point, about a month ago, came to our hearing room. He sat next to me and then gave one of the best orations I have heard in a committee. He was 92. He turned the pages of his speech himself. That wasn’t so easy for him. It was clearly–knowing the way he thought and his way of speaking–written completely by him. It was an amazing statement. It was impassioned, erudite, balanced, and, as the Presiding Officer remembers, it electrified the room. It was an amazing tour de force. The man cared so much about the Senate. Despite the fact he was ailing, there he was because he loved the Senate. His remarks, if my colleagues read them, were balanced. He understood the problems, but he understood the traditions, and he tried, as usual, to weave the two together.
There are few Senators who could do that, in the more than 200-year history of this body, the way he could.
I will never forget when Senator Byrd, sick as he was, was outside the steps of the Capitol to salute Ted Kennedy after he passed earlier this year. It was Senator Byrd who provided the crucial vote to fulfill Ted Kennedy’s lifelong passion: Comprehensive health care reform. As every Senator sat at their desk for the final passage vote, the clerk called the roll [on Christmas Eve morning]. When Senator Byrd’s name was called, he raised his voice as loud as he could and declared: "Madam President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy. Aye!"
This farewell is for the friend of we, the people, and the Legislative Branch of government designed to represent us, Robert C. Byrd.
The last publicly-spoken speech of Senator Byrd in the United States Senate, on May 19, 2010, to which Senator Schumer refers, is available here (both the text and a video of the hearing).
What I did witness of Senator Byrd’s career demonstrated that, at least in his later years, he was very sentimental, perhaps to a fault, about those who probably deserved it – his dog(s) – and about those who probably did not – certain long-time Senate colleagues, like Ted Stevens of Alaska.
Perhaps that sentimentality is why, despite his undeniable love and respect for the democratic institution in which he served, I suspect objective observers would agree, now or in the future, that Senator Byrd witnessed, while he served in the Senate over the last fifty years, the gradual but steady decline and fall of that institution – which still claims to be the "world’s greatest deliberative body" – as a democratic, self-governing legislature answerable to the people.
In comparison to the House, at least, the Senate is certainly still the "greatest deliberative body" in the land by some distance. But that’s not saying much, because the House has effectively been reduced to a mechanism to facilitate the exercise and abuse of raw Party power by a select few, in lieu of genuine democratic debate and amendment by our Representatives. The pressure to follow that trend will continue to mount in the Senate, so long as Senators refuse to carry the load they signed up for, and try to pass their responsibility and their power off on Party "leaders," to make their own lives easier – pretty words to the contrary nothwithstanding.
I think it’s safe to say that Senator Byrd clearly saw this downfall coming – he fought hard, as Majority Party Leader in the late 1980s, without meaningful success in the end, for a version of campaign finance reform – and also saw that downfall in all but name arrive – as parts of the statement he made just over a month ago diplomatically indicate.
But Senator Byrd never did part ways with his Party, or with the increasingly-dominant corporate-underwritten Party culture that now has a stranglehold on the House and the Senate. Senator Byrd instead worked within that increasingly-corrupt Party system to try to maintain an institution that – like its rules and precedents – must always remain independent of such external corruptions and factions in order to thrive and survive, in more than name, no matter the political moods of the moment.
Without allies, the corrosive power of the Parties was too much to resist or overcome, even for a man like Senator Byrd. He needed and needs younger allies to condemn and repair the destruction that rigid Party control has wrought on our House and Senate, and such allies are now vanishingly rare.
This week the pretty words are flowing fast in his memory from Senator Byrd’s colleagues. But the deeds to back up and make meaningful those words are nowhere to be seen. My, how they do love to relate the anecdote that Paul Sarbanes recounts from Byrd, about Senators serving "with" rather than "under" Presidents – even as those same colleagues, to a Party Man and Woman, privately and publicly obsequiously submit to and serve the President and his men at every opportunity. Or, while temporarily denied their own Party Man in the presidency, to whom to fawn and forfeit their power, they instead focus all their energies and rhetoric on the President at every turn, in hopes of sooner bringing the day when their own Party Man is again in the White House, ready to accept their abject subservience to the head of the Executive Branch of government.
Senator Byrd had to have seen and known all this. His Party loyalties, long Party membership, and intense personal loyalties to the Senate Club and its members after decades in office must have helped keep him silent about the perpetrators of this sickening state of affairs, even as he preached ["Hear me now!"] in broad terms about the dangerous consequences of such irresponsible abdication of the role of the Legislative Branch of government in the balance of powers. In broad terms which those perpretrators now parrot in tribute to him, even as they themselves ensure, by their actions and inactions in office, that those consequences will arrive, day by day.
Mr. LEVIN. Mr. President, I want to take a few moments today about one of the best teachers I have ever known: Senator Robert C. Byrd.
I had hoped to visit with him this week to again listen and learn. In February, Senator Byrd sent all of us, his Senate colleagues, a letter setting out his position on preserving the ability to engage in extended debate in the Senate. It was yet another powerful defense of both the enduring traditions of the Senate, and the need for thoughtfulness in invoking those traditions. Senator Byrd’s letter sparked some thoughts of my own, and last week, I discussed with his staff scheduling a meeting with him this week to get his take. Once again, I was in need of the insight and wisdom of Senator Robert Byrd.
How I wish he were here today, to continue teaching us.
Whether it was Congress’s constitutional obligations to render judgments on matters of war and peace or to exercise the power of the purse, Senator Byrd was a relentless fighter for the role the Founding Fathers carefully set out for us. He was not defending Senate authority for its own sake. His passion was not for Senate prerogatives for their own sake, but for the brilliantly conceived constitutional balance of powers essential to our freedoms. He passionately believed that we must not yield one ounce of the authority that the Constitution entrusts to the peoples’ elected representatives. We can all learn from the conviction, the dedication and the intellectual power he brought to that cause, to the end of making it our cause. Let the mission he so eloquently espoused be our mission, though our power to persuade be far less than Senator Byrd’s.
But the Senate is his special legacy. For more than two centuries we have kept our traditions intact: our unique respect for extended debate and minority rights, and for the legislative authority that the Constitution places in our hands to exercise and defend. These traditions are maintained because of Senators like Robert Byrd, Senators who live them and fight for them. I learned more about these weighty issues from this great teacher than from anyone or anything in my years in the Senate.
Yes, Senator Levin, those traditions must indeed be lived and fought for, not merely spoken, or they will simply cease to exist, as they largely have in the House of Representatives to little notice or care in the nation at large (except as to the destructive consequences of unvetted policy and absent oversight, which are on dreadful display all around us).
We and the Senate should not only remember Senator Byrd’s words, as he so faithfully remembered the words of those who came before him…:
I point out in my history of the Senate that the rules of the Senate by which we operate today, in many ways, are almost the same, if not the same, as the rules which were adopted in 1789, and that, in some respects, the rules of today even have their roots in the Continental Congress that first met in 1774 and, even beyond that, reaching across the great Atlantic Ocean to the House of Commons in England.
My experience with the Senate’s rules compels me to appreciate the wisdom that Vice President Adlai Stevenson expressed in his farewell address to the Senate on March 3, 1897. I believe his observation is as fitting today as it was at the end of the nineteenth century.
Now, Vice President Adlai Stevenson spoke [in 1897] as follows:
It must not be forgotten that the rules governing this body are founded deep in human experience; that they are the result of centuries of tireless effort in legislative hall, to conserve, to render stable and secure, the rights and liberties which have been achieved by conflict. By its rules the Senate wisely fixes the limits to its own power. Of those who clamor against the Senate, and its methods of procedure, it may be truly said: `They know not what they do.’ In this Chamber alone are preserved, without restraint, two essentials of wise legislation and of good government–the right of amendment and of debate.
Great evils often result from hasty legislation; rarely from the delay which follows full discussion and deliberation. In my humble judgment, the historic Senate–preserving the unrestricted right of amendment and of debate, maintaining intact the time-honored parliamentary methods and amenities which unfailingly secure action after deliberation–possesses in our scheme of government a value which can not be measured by words.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.
– Senator Robert Byrd, 10/2/1992 [Item 45]
[Vice Presidents used to give farewell addresses to the Senate, because they used to actually preside over the daily sessions of the Senate, as Senate President.]
…but we should also remember Senator Byrd’s deeds, which acted upon and made real his words, and insist that those who ask to serve in our federal legislature try to live up to Byrd’s respect for the institution in which he served, as part of a desperately-needed effort to remake our legislature into an institution that, above all, represents the will of the people, and operates from the ground up – with all members, and thus all states and citizens, on an equal footing – not from the top down.
Perhaps such necessary reform could start by ending, or severely restricting, the Senate’s non-quorum quorum call, which has helped turn the Senate into an empty, silent chamber most of the time it’s "in session," and sent the most contentious Senate action into the back rooms (rephrasing slightly an earlier comment of mine):
The original default of Senate debate, followed by a vote, followed by the next amendment in sequence, has been abandoned through the use of the pretend, or fake, quorum call, in favor of backroom agreements arranged by Party leadership. A pretend quorum call – which fills time and prevents Senate business without actually calling the attendance roll, until lifted by unanimous consent – removes the pressure to publicly debate on the Senate floor to block a vote. That’s because without the ability to request a pretend quorum call (which has no limits on its deployment, until the Majority Leader unilaterally decides otherwise and silently converts it into a real quorum call), in the absence of actual floor debate the Presiding Officer is required to put the pending question to a vote (or, if requested, to have the Clerk call a live quorum call, which does have limits on its deployment and actually comes to a conclusion – there’s either a simple-majority Constitutionally-required quorum, or else the Senate must either force the attendance of Senators or adjourn), keeping Senate business proceeding unimpeded, absent a real filibuster, without the need to resort to unanimous consent to call up an amendment or to get a vote on an amendment when debate on it has ended.
The abuse of supermajority cloture motions by the majority Party is a parallel to the abuse of fake or pretend quorum calls by the Senate as a whole. Both of them are symptoms of a federal legislature that’s afraid to publicly debate and legislate. We can passively accept that state of affairs, or we can demand representatives who are ready and willing to do the legislative job required. Focusing on the filibuster or on cloture abuse, while overlooking what House floor “debate” and amending has degenerated to, a deplorable state of non-debate toward which Senate floor action is increasingly trending under top-down Party rule, would be to miss the forest for the trees.
Senator Schumer, yesterday:
[Tomorrow, July 1, 2010], Mr. President, Senator Byrd will make one final visit to this Senate Chamber that he so loved. There could be no more appropriate way for us to say good-bye to him and honor him than to yield the Senate floor to him for one last time.
Which, however, should be followed, not with a return to business as usual on July 12th, but by the beginning of work – by the incumbents, or else by their challengers and replacements in the near future – to make the Senate a Senate again, a part of an independent, co-equal branch of government, instead of the hand puppet of the President (and D.C.’s corporate benefactors) that it has become.