'Rock Of Stability' Stays Tough

Sunday December 29, 2002


By Paul J. Nyden
Staff Writer

From fighting "fast track" to saving Amtrak, from protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to questioning the new Homeland Security Department, from saving steelworkers' jobs to defending federal workers' rights, Sen. Robert C. Byrd was there this year.

From advocating the rights of military veterans to promoting the teaching of high school history ...

From questioning pre-emptive military strikes to insisting Americans must know what their government does in the Philippines, in Colombia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Palestine ...

And for standing up to threats to basic civil liberties and for the Constitution, Robert C. Byrd — who grew up poor in a coal mining family in Sophia — was the "Conscience of the Senate."

The year 2002 would have been remarkable for any senator who fought hard for two or three of these causes. Byrd fought for all of them. And he fought even when most of his colleagues shied away from questioning the propriety of pre-emptive war.

For these reasons and more, the Sunday Gazette-Mail has named Byrd the 2002 West Virginian of the Year.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said: "If ever there was a giant in the Senate, it's Bob Byrd. He's respected by all of us. He's renowned for his vast ability on the issues, his extraordinary knowledge of Senate history and his constant dedication to insisting that the Senate lives up to the ideals of the Constitution.

"He ranks with the all-time Senate greats. If the founding fathers were meeting today, Bob Byrd would be one of them."

David Montgomery, a Yale University history professor, said: "His is a voice of sanity. The administration has shown itself not only willing, but eager, to destroy both world peace and our country's constitutional liberties and procedures all for the sake of creating and unleashing military power that no country may dare resist.

"Senator Byrd reminds the president and all Americans of the best in our country's traditions," Montgomery said.

"I believe that if the framers of the Constitution could have been sitting in the galleries this year, they would have strongly approved of the positions I have taken and the remarks I have made," Byrd said during an interview earlier this month.

"They would have been equally saddened by the weakness upon the part of the legislative branch to stand up for its power and prerogatives under the Constitution. And they would also have been frightened, I think, by the administration and its pell-mell rush to take this country into war and to develop a huge bureaucracy with so little aforethought. I believe that this is the way they would have reacted."

Dr. Richard Baker, the official Senate historian, said Byrd "knows more about the institutional operation of the Senate than anybody in the entire history of the Senate, at least since Daniel Webster and Thomas Hart Benton.

"For me, as the historian of the Senate, it is an honor to be here when Senator Byrd is in office. By his interest, he takes a natural inclination on the part of people in the Senate to value tradition and turns the spotlight on that venue more brightly."

Throughout his long career, Byrd has defended the Constitution.

"It is because of that Constitution that we have three branches of government. It is because of that Constitution that we have separation of powers, the checks and balances so very important in our daily lives," Byrd said.

James P. Shenton, a Columbia University history professor, said: "He is a rock of stability. You can depend on him to consistently take the stands he does. When it comes to integrity, that is the ultimate test. He didn't constantly try to keep abreast of the political pressures of the moment.

"There is something about Senator Byrd that triggers my memories of Harry Truman. Byrd never hedges. If you ask him a straight question, you get a straight answer. That makes him one of the more intriguing people in the Senate," Shenton said.

'He is a real-life Horatio Alger'

One of this year's most powerful, recurring congressional images was of Robert C. Byrd standing on the Senate floor, holding up a copy of the Constitution.

In past years, Byrd was often photographed playing his fiddle, especially on the campaign trail. He still likes to tell West Virginians their best friends are "God, Carter's Little Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd."

Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va, said: "He is a real-life Horatio Alger, having risen from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power. The thing that defines Senator Byrd throughout his career is that he always kept the faith with those who put their trust in him, principally his constituents."

Born in 1917 in North Wilkesboro, N.C., Byrd became an orphan when his mother died the following year. His aunt and uncle, a coal miner, brought him to Southern West Virginia.

During the Depression, Byrd graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. Without money, he pumped gas, sold produce, worked as a butcher, welded battleships.

In 1946, Byrd ran for the House of Delegates and served two terms before winning a state Senate seat in 1950. In 1952, he won a seat in Congress and in 1958, a seat in the U.S. Senate.

During those early years, Byrd cast some votes he regretted. Byrd believes the biggest mistake he made was filibustering, and voting against, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Earlier this year, Byrd talked about another vote that year.

"I recall all too well the nightmare of Vietnam. I recall too well the antiwar protests and demonstrations, the campus riots, and the tragic deaths at Kent State, as well as the resignation of a president. And I remember all too well the gruesome daily body counts in Vietnam," Byrd told the Senate in June.

Byrd praised Sens. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., and Ernst Gruening, D- Alaska — the only two who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964 that expanded the war in Southeast Asia.

"Morse expressed his concern that the Pentagon and the executive branch were perpetrating a 'snow job' upon Congress and the American people," Byrd said. "If the Senate approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Senator Morse warned, the 'senators who vote for it will live to regret it.'"

Byrd himself was one of those senators. And his state, West Virginia, saw a greater percentage of its sons die in Vietnam than any other.

This fall, Byrd delivered some of the most impassioned speeches of his 50 years in Congress, urging fellow senators to deny the Bush administration a "blank check" to attack Iraq.

"Congress will be putting itself on the sidelines," he said. Quoting Roman historian Titus Livius, Byrd called Bush "blind and improvident."

"As we learned all too well in Korea, Vietnam and Somalia, it is dangerous to present Congress and the American people with a fait accompli on important matters of foreign affairs," Byrd said.

Former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton called Byrd "a person who had remarkable growth in power and in position and in intellect. But he always maintained his sense of where he came from.

"I have been particularly proud of what he has done related to the Iraq situation. He did not just follow the easy way to go. He sincerely believes in the constitutional responsibility of the Senate and his responsibility as a senator," Caperton said.

In November, Byrd called the 484-page Homeland Security bill a "monstrosity." He told colleagues, "There are members of the U.S. Senate and House who are terrified apparently if the president of the United States tells them, urges them, to vote a certain way that may be against their belief. ...

"It was shifting power from the legislative branch to the executive branch. I am not for that."

Byrd lost that vote, 90 to 9. But he reached a national audience.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said: "My wife and I are Catholic and go to church in Chicago. One Sunday, we came back from communion at the altar and were kneeling down in our pews, with the choir singing.

"An older fellow standing next to me looked down and said, 'Stick with Bob Byrd.' Back in Washington, I told him, 'They are following you in Chicago, Senator Byrd,'" Durbin said.

When Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., retires in January, Byrd will become the Senate's longest-serving member. In 2006, Byrd could become the longest serving senator in U.S. history. He has already cast more roll-call votes than anyone in the Senate's 214 years.

Harry S. Truman was president during Byrd's first 17 days in Congress. "I think he was the greatest Democratic president in my lifetime. He was thrust into a position of power and responsibility. He acquitted himself well. He showed stamina, determination and backbone, so lacking in so many places today."

Byrd said Dwight D. Eisenhower was the "greatest Republican president" during his career.

In his January 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower warned: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Echoing Eisenhower, Byrd said earlier this year, "For all of their blustering about how al-Qaida is determined to strike at our freedoms, this administration shows little appreciation for the constitutional doctrines and processes that have preserved those freedoms for more than two centuries."

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said: "When Senator Byrd defends civil liberties, he knows full well those liberties and freedoms were attacked on 9/11. But now more than ever, we need the strength and backbone of a Robert C. Byrd to ensure we do not lose our civil liberties through efforts of our government to provide for our security."

'Why shouldn't he fight for equality?'

Byrd also fought threats to American jobs. He believes the North American Free Trade Agreement hurt companies and workers alike by eliminating hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs in steel, agriculture, clothing and shoemaking.

In May, Byrd urged senators to reject "fast-track authority" to allow all future presidents "carte blanche to determine what will be contained in a series of trade agreements." Byrd lost that battle, 66 to 30.

"Enacting fast-track," he said, "not only provides the president with unfettered authority to negotiate trade agreements. It also prevents the Senate from exercising its constitutional responsibility to reject or modify trade agreements that are not in the best interests of the American people."

In an interview earlier this month, Byrd said: "The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate commerce. Not that I expect to see every toothbrush and toothpick and every fiddle bow. But in the fast- track process, Congress gives up its power. We deprive ourselves of the right to debate and amend."

In May, Byrd said, "Increased globalization encouraged American industries to pack up and seek other lands where labor is cheaper, and industries do not have to comply with the environmental and safety standard that we have in the United States. ...

"Globalization has also left our industries more vulnerable to the unfair, predatory trade practices of foreign countries. Look at the American steel industry, which has been absolutely devastated by the dumping of cheap foreign steel."

Byrd and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., were among the most vocal leaders of the Senate Steel Caucus that convinced President Bush to impose three years of tariffs on steel imports in March.

Ken Hall, president of Teamsters Local 175 in Kanawha City and lead negotiator for national United Parcel Service contracts, believes Byrd "has done an incredibly good job of balancing the interests of business and working people.

"I admire him for trying to protect workers' right to union representation, particularly in the Homeland Security legislation. The first ones on the scene in New York after 9/11 were thousands of union members driving truck equipment, firefighters and police officers. Union members had a huge presence trying to find survivors and working on cleanup."

Byrd has continued to bring thousands of jobs to West Virginia through building roads and new federal offices for agencies, including the FBI, NASA, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Department of Energy, Bureau of Prisons and Department of Defense.

Over the years, some have criticized Byrd for being a "king of pork."

"But why shouldn't he fight for some kind of equality for West Virginia?" Caperton asked.

Fred VanKirk, West Virginia secretary of transportation, said, "Senator Byrd enjoys his role in being able to bring money to the state.

"How can people criticize him when Senator Trent Lott [R-Miss.] got between $14 [billion] and $15 billion to build a seaport in Mississippi? Or when [the late House Speaker] Tip O'Neill [D-Mass.] got billions in federal money to upgrade interstates through Boston?"

This year, Byrd also worked to increase funding for federal- state efforts to preserve the stories of veterans, including a joint effort by West Virginia University and the Library of Congress.

WVU President David C. Hardesty Jr. said, "This project, in which veterans' accounts are recorded for future generations, will have many benefits, not the least of which is to give us all the resolve to work for global peace and to remember those who preserved American freedom."

Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor, said he admires Byrd's leadership in two areas.

"One is his effort to get more federal funding to promote the teaching of American history in high school. As an historian, I applaud that. I think that whatever one's personal point of view, greater knowledge of American history is important in a democracy.

"I also salute him for his courage in raising serious questions about the administration's course toward war. A lot of people have been cowed, unwilling to appear unpatriotic or afraid of being accused of being weak. Democracy requires vigorous debate about issues like this."

The possibility of war in Iraq

This is the fourth time the Sunday Gazette-Mail has named Byrd West Virginian of the Year.

In 1974, the paper praised Byrd for rising "from Raleigh County poverty to leadership in Congress"; in 1977 for attaining "national power as Senate majority leader"; and in 1990 "for bringing billions of dollars' worth of federal projects to West Virginia."

Mollohan said: "Senator Byrd is the conscience of the Senate. No one, Democrat or Republican, whether they agree or disagree with his politics, does not respect him.

"Presidents disregard his counsel at their own peril. He rightly recognizes the executive and legislative branches are co-equal. He fully understands the checks that the legislative branch can impose on the executive branch, particularly through the appropriations process, where he is perfectly positioned to effect those checks."

Byrd leaves no doubt he wants to see Saddam Hussein gone. "He has promoted the starvation of Iraqi children so that he and his cabal can live in palaces. Saddam Hussein is a scourge on the people of Iraq and a menace to peace," he told the Senate.

"When the president is ready to present his case to Congress, I am ready to listen. But I am tired of trying to connect dots in the dark."

Ronald L. Lewis, a West Virginia University history professor, said, "His stand on a possible war has been courageous, as were his cautions about losing civil rights when everyone seems to be on a bandwagon."

Byrd knows who is likely to suffer most from war.

"We may soon send our sons and daughters to fight, and perhaps die, in the sands of the Middle East. But thus far, we have encountered only a wall of secrecy at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue — a wall built on the pillars of executive privilege."

In September, Byrd warned about biological weapons created by a "witches' brew of pathogens" shipped by the U.S. to Iraq between 1980 and 1993.

"We have a paper trail," Byrd told the Senate. "We not only know that Iraq has biological weapons, we know the type, the strain and the batch number of the germs that may have been used to fashion those weapons. We know the dates they were shipped and the addresses to which they were shipped."

Byrd criticized Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld for refusing to answer any questions about these shipments.

"In the event of a war with Iraq, might the United States be facing the possibility of reaping what it has sown?" Byrd asked in September.

Florine Warden, an 84-year-old Democratic activist from Beckley, has known Byrd for decades. "Senator Byrd is tops. They will take him out when they carry him feet first. He is right about Bush and Iraq. We will live to regret this.

"I hope and pray the good Lord will leave him here until we get this mess straightened out. Or millions of people here and all over the world will suffer from what our government might do."

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