Many liberals were startled when one of the strongest Senate voices warning against invading Iraq turned out to be 84-year-old Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a man slightly to the center-right of his party, a defense hawk and very much a traditionalist. But at the heart of Byrd's traditionalism is reverence for the U.S. Constitution. And in the days leading up to the Senate vote to give President Bush authority to take military action against Iraq, Byrd hammered away at two points: First, the Bush administration was trying to take away Congress' constitutional right to declare war; and second, the Senate wasn't spending enough time debating a momentous resolution that could send American soldiers to their deaths.
Of course, Byrd's arguments were defeated when senators first voted for cloture, blocking Byrd's threatened filibuster; they then backed the White House by a vote of 77-to-23, with a slender majority of Democrats supporting Bush. During the Iraq debate, Byrd was anything but deferential to his president. (Noting that England's King Charles I first used the term commander in chief in 1639, Byrd said, "You know what happened to Charles I of England? The swordsman cut off the head of Charles I on Jan. 30, 1649. So much for commander in chief.")
He flatly accused the administration of employing a wag-the-dog strategy by shifting attention from the faltering economy to the war. He noted that the Bush team failed to produce evidence that immediate action was needed despite numerous requests from lawmakers. He contended that the administration is using the war against terrorism and the creation of a Department of Homeland Security to grab power from the legislative branch. And earlier this year, he pronounced this White House the most partisan he's seen in almost 50 years in Washington, a period that includes George Bush Senior, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
Byrd was appalled that in its document making the case for a war resolution, the Bush White House mentioned the Constitution only once in 31 pages -- and used a lowercase "c." "It references the Constitution as though it were some dusty relic of the past that needs to be eulogized before it is retired," he said, pointing out that Bush wouldn't be president without it. "What is the matter with those people? Haven't they studied the Constitution down at the other end of the avenue? They better become aware of it."
Since coming to the Senate in 1959, Byrd has held every major leadership position, including majority leader, minority leader, president pro tempore (his current title) and chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. (His Web site modestly proclaims that he rose from "Humble Beginnings to West Virginian of the Century.") He literally wrote the book on the Senate, a four-volume history that covers notable speeches, topics such as impeachment and judicial nominations, and even the Senate's role in American film and literature. Protecting the Senate's domain is second nature to him. Former Rep. Ken Hechler (D-W.Va.), who teaches at Marshall University, observes, "He's certainly a protector of the prerogatives of Congress to the nth degree."
Byrd opposed the line-item veto successfully promoted by the Clinton administration several years ago, noting that the Roman Senate fell when it gave up the power of the purse. He often waves a copy of the Constitution around when he speaks on the Senate floor.
Two years ago, West Virginia voters sent him to the Senate with 78 percent of the vote, his eighth straight term. "There's no conceivable way he could lose an election here," says Paul Nyden, a reporter who covers Byrd for The Charleston Gazette. And Byrd has returned the favor of voter faith, bringing back billions of dollars to his tiny state and earning the nickname "the King of Pork." Providing support for infrastructure has been one of his key issues in Washington, along with other state interests such as supporting steel. Hechler notes that Byrd, who has numerous things named after him in West Virginia, is the state's "greatest economic-development officer."
Byrd could well run for re-election in 2006, when he's 88 years old. And if he follows Sen. Strom Thurmond's (R-S.C.) example, he could complete two more terms before retiring. He seems to enjoy the job too much to leave. His Web site notes that he's cast more votes than any senator in history. Once he leaves office, West Virginia will lose much of the influence it enjoys today.
When he was first elected to the House in 1953, Byrd didn't have a college degree. "Because he didn't have a formal education, he's sort of been self-taught," associate Senate historian Don Ritchie says. "He's been reading the same writers the Founding Fathers would have read." (Byrd later earned his undergraduate and law degrees.) He often recites poems and quotes historical figures such as Cicero and Edmund Burke on the Senate floor. As a result, his knowledge more closely reflects that of a senator from the 19th century than one from the 20th or 21st, Ritchie says, noting, "He keeps reminding them that there are reasons why we do things the way we do." Adds his junior West Virginia colleague, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, "There's an old school but a new school about him, that he believes in the founding principles of this country and then deals easily and constantly with issues very much of this day."
West Virginia U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall remembers the few times he arrived late when he worked for the then-Democratic Senate whip in the early 1970s. "It was clear I should not be late again," he says, laughing at the memory. Rahall has known Byrd since the former was a child. His father volunteered on Byrd's early campaigns, when Byrd told voters that West Virginia's best friends were God, Carter's Little Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd. The two men got along well because they "saw in each other a mutual desire for work," Rahall says.
Byrd's penchant for working hard developed early. After his mother died when he was a year old, Byrd lived with his aunt and uncle, pumping gas and cutting meat to earn money. In 1963, Byrd got his law degree from American University after taking night classes while in Congress. Many of his speeches included in his book The Senate: 1789-1989 were delivered on Friday afternoons after other senators went home, Ritchie says. When Byrd ran against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) for the whip job in 1971, he used the time he'd spent on the floor and the favors he'd done for other senators to his advantage, winning by a single vote. A few weeks ago, Byrd, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, spoke for more than three hours on the floor about homeland security (even though his wife of 65 years was in the hospital).
Byrd seems perfectly suited to work in a chamber that follows strict parliamentary rules (of which Byrd is a master), and he expects courtesy from its members. Before the final day of debate over Iraq, Byrd shook hands with several senators who would later argue against him. He is scrupulous about following the courtly norms of senatorial etiquette.
So when the Senate decided to spend just a few days debating Iraq, Byrd politely chastised lawmakers for rushing through their work. "The American people seem to have a better understanding of the Constitution than those who are elected to represent them," he said during the debate. He had tallied approximately 50,000 e-mails and nearly 20,000 phone calls to his office from across the country in the days leading up to the vote. Passing the resolution without taking more time to consider its implications, he said, would be akin to hanging a sign atop the Capitol that reads, "Gone home. Gone fishing. Out of business."
Byrd's detractors consider him a pork-barrel Democrat who uses his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee mainly to deliver federal benefits to West Virginia, one of America's poorest states. But in an era when Republicans have tried to make tax-and-spend an epithet, Byrd's traditionalism -- both his reverence for the Constitution and his enthusiasm for public works -- make him one of the staunchest liberals.
One noted political observer suggests that Byrd is more concerned with enforcing the separation of powers and serving his constituents than he is to adhering to a specific ideology. But in the George W. Bush era, that once noncontroversial posture has almost become an opposition ideology. It isn't so much that Byrd has moved left, it's that constitutionalism today seems almost as old-fashioned as public outlay.
While he has rarely voted with those who try to cut Pentagon spending requests, Byrd did oppose George Bush Senior on the Gulf War. Byrd now considers that he made a serious mistake in 1964 when he cast his vote in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president broad powers to wage war in Vietnam without demanding that he present evidence to Congress. Byrd has done about-faces before: He supported Reagan's tax cut in 1981 but opposed the current Bush's cut two decades later.
As the debate over Iraq wrapped up, Byrd conceded that even though he opposed the resolution, both the Constitution and the Senate would survive its passage. Still, he reiterated his defense of Congress' war-making authority, warning Bush that he should come back and seek formal authorization when he decides to attack Baghdad. If a war in Iraq starts to sour, however, look for Byrd to be back on the floor, reminding senators that they should have listened to his admonitions about giving up their power. Allan Hammock of West Virginia University, a veteran Byrd-watcher, notes, "He could rant and rave if things start going badly in Iraq, say, 'I told you so,' and wave a copy of the Constitution."
And he'd be right.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a senior editor at the Prospect.