One can only pray that a just God raises up another in the Byrd tradition, to serve Virginia & America so well. With that prayer, and one that the Senatorial Harry Byrds, father & son, may rest in well deserved peace, we close this introduction. May God Bless all who join us in mourning their passing, as we celebrate their lives.]
It is not essential that a biographer agree with his subject for a work to have merit. It is essential that he understand what motivated that subject. And it is not unreasonable to expect that, at the conclusion of a serious biography, the reader will know more about the cadence to which that subject marched than that which animates his biographer.
In Harry Byrd of Virginia, Ronald L. Heinemann paints a very detailed picture of the leading Virginian of the 20th Century; an able, largely self-made and self-educated man--despite a patrician heritage;--a pragmatic politician, who had an unusually skilled grasp of all the nuances of partisan politics from the Court Houses and Legislature of Virginia to the U.S. Senate; a man who, relatively early in life, achieved both a national reputation and a very large measure of personal political control over an organization, which dominated politics at all levels in the Old Dominion for over forty years. In the course of his personal development, that subject displayed a keen knack for business from newspapers to apple orchards, and won the highest level of respect across the continent, both as a spokesman for economic conservatism, regional Southern interests, and traditionally limited Constitutional Government; not only from his colleagues in Washington, but from the leading mainstream journalists of the day.
But throughout this heavily researched and detailed account of many of the day to day encounters of the late Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., the author repeatedly fails to display any real understanding of the major causes for which the Senator came to be identified; the players, yes--the political advantages and disadvantages, in a great profusion--but only an almost trivially superficial treatment of the issues.
It would be as though one writing a history of the Thirty Years War in Europe, were to recount the scenes and results of the endless battles, and the nominal religious commitments of the partisans of each--even down to recounting where there was evidence that this or that Prince was employing the nominal religious issue as an expedient, a ploy for self-aggrandizement;--and yet never once analyze in depth the actual bases for the religious conflict; the actual principals for which the non-expedient in those conflicts were willing to die.
Although it does not purport to be the subject; as we peruse the biography, we learn more than is perhaps necessary about the orientation of the biographer. Those things, which Virginians have always cherished, become in the mind of Professor Heinemann, something a little different. Thus, the people of Winchester (where young Harry grew to manhood, and first distinguished himself in business) were "obsessed with their worship of the heroes of the Confederacy" (page 1). Byrd had an "obsession with debt" (page 167). Francis Pickens Miller (a long time foe of the Senator) "accurately analyzed Byrd's obsession" (page 220). Byrd had an "obsession with his personal integrity" (page 289). At page 238, Byrd was "consumed by his hatred of 'New Dealism.'" Perhaps Professor Heinemann would have preferred a leader to whom personal integrity was less important.
But we do not need to employ Freudian techniques to determine the author's partisanship. Thus we are offered a picture of the Byrd-Eccles debate (Marrinner Eccles, Keynsian Fed Chairman) in 1938-1939, on the merits of Government pump priming as a cure for the Depression, and the general merits of deficit spending. which very definitely sides with Eccles; chiding Byrd for looking to Will Rogers, Jefferson and Jackson for his economics, and failing to answer Eccles argument about "government's responsibility for the needy." After injecting these non- economic issues into the debate, he accuses Byrd of a "simplistic grasp of economics" (page 202).
Had the author delved a little deeper into the issues, rather than the ex cathedra pronouncements of prominent liberals, he would have found that some very unsimplistic economists have come to the conclusion that the Roosevelt-Eccles deficit policies only prolonged the great Depression; that the Jefferson-Jackson economics of balanced budgets and paying off debt, ushered in the era of the fastest growth in American History; and that the Constitution of the United States offers not one word to suggest a Federal "responsibility for the needy." The great concern with balancing the Budget and for Welfare reform, today, as with a more responsible Federal Reserve, suggest that Harry Byrd's economics are very much alive and well--very much a part of the reasoned debate--60 years after the incidents challenged.
Again, in the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the author (with no analysis whatsoever of the very real, and still present Constitutional and social issues involved) becomes an avid partisan against his subject: "Harry Byrd was unrepentant, undeterred and ignorant of the majesty of the moment....Rarely do legislators confront a bill that tests their understanding of history and the moral forces at work in the world....Harry Byrd failed the test" (page 404). My, my! Rhetoric and ex cathedra pronouncements are not a substitute for rational argument.
Harry Byrd understood that the debate was about a written Constitution, and the rights of the States which ratified that Constitution, under its specific provisions. Prof. Heinemann doesn't have much to say about that. Harry Byrd understood that there are very serious social questions involved in the inter-action of diverse peoples--questions not resolved by sanctimonious rhetoric--questions that mankind have been wrestling with for thousands of years. Prof. Heinemann is totally silent about those questions. Some of those same questions are being raised today by prominent Black conservatives. But enough. Dare we suggest that it wasn't Harry Byrd who failed the test.
At page 268, Byrd is described as a "gadfly." "He was not challenged to think anew, to be a problem solver... his indifference toward the legislative process...meant his name would never be associated with any significant legislation." But, Professor, you again beg the question. If you do not believe that it is the role of Government to solve the problems of "the needy", the so-called "disadvantaged" groups; your role is not to be associated with legislation, but to oppose it; and this Byrd did with enthusiasm and dedication for over 32 1/2 years. His was not indifference, but comprehension. None of his contemporaries saw Harry Byrd as a "gadfly."
At page 173, we are told that "Byrd never fully understood the unlevel playing field that working people had to endure." This had come out a little differently on page 121. There Byrd had "never understood that it was the loss of opportunity that forced people to turn to government as a last resort in the face of catastrophe. It was a blind spot in his already narrow social conscience." The Senator's policies "condemned Virginia to social backwardness" (page 176). But Virginia voters would not reject his "time honored cliche`s of states' rights, rugged individualism and economy and efficiency" (page 183). Is "philosophy" a cliche`; "law"; "Constitutional government"? If "economy" is a cliche`, is not "biology"? What about "poverty," "the needy," "social conscience"--"Civil Rights"?
Dare one to suggest that the Senator would not have been able to control politics at all levels in the State for over forty years--as Professor Heinemann readily acknowledges--if he had not had a pretty solid conscious awareness of the workings of the social order. Yes, he was a patrician by heritage; economically, he was a self-made man, who rose rapidly in the school of hard knocks [a popular cliche` for earning what you achieve, dealing with real people and real adversity]; yet he always retained a common touch. While the book, for some reason, seems to prefer quoting what others had to say about the Senator's views, rather than what he said himself, the issue between the Senator and his foes was never so much a different understanding of the nature of the present, but a question of what sort of future would best suit the legitimate interests of the people. And while States' Rights and economy are subjects, not cliche`s, the Senator spoke and wrote for many years, at some length, as to what they meant to him, and all traditional Virginians.
Professor Heinemann cites with approval Everett Dirksen's employment of a very much over-used quotation from Victor Hugo at page 403; and then shows a need to trivialize his subject by denying Dirksen's assessment at Byrd's retirement: "Byrd was one of the great Senators who came to the Senate. He stoutly maintained the ideals of Virginia and the country. Byrd was unrelenting in his views, but think of the leavening effect he had on the country" (page 418). "Dirksen exaggerated his influence," replies the Professor, "for there had been little leavening, only a warning. Byrd had not been a major player in the United States Senate." (!!) But despite his occasional carping, the author had already documented over the previous 200 plus pages, what a very great player the Senator had indeed been! And even apart from the economic and Constitutional issues for which the Senator was best known, just in his role in the dumping of Henry Wallace, the summer before Roosevelt died (which the Professor acknowledges, page 242), Byrd played a major role in the post war history of America.
Dirksen's unsupported quotation from a long dead Frenchman is somehow worthy of belief when he agrees with the Professor; but he is apparently given to hyperbole when he is speaking from his own experience! But as to Byrd the Illinoisian was speaking from three terms of shared experience, while in Victor Hugo, he quoted one long dead, who understood nothing whatever of the issues involved in the racial politics of the 1960s.
The author finally (page 419) turns to the New York Times to sum up his own conclusions: "A talented man, Byrd chose to stand outside the broad currents of his time and to set his face against the future... He began as a force and ended as an anachronism" (November 14, 1965).
I will come back to "face" and "future," but "anachronism" reminds one of H. L. Mencken's ringing tribute to another great conservative Democratic Senator, on the latter's retirement from the Senate in 1929, "He was an anachronistic and disquieting reminder of the days when a Senator of the United States stood on his own legs and was his own man." One could say the same thing of Harry Byrd, but not so many as even a handful of others in this century. It was no failure for Byrd to disdain the trendy sycophants of politics.
Two days before the New York Times article quoted--the actual day after the Senator's retirement--another writer for the same paper took a little more cordial tone. He described how one winter day, the Senator--who ordinarily took a several mile walk each morning, with his little cocker spaniel Pam--found his car stuck on a frozen hillside, and had to walk back to his Washington hotel. When his little pet was too cold to follow, the loving master carried her in his arms the last half mile through the snow ("A Virginia Gentleman," New York Times, November 12, 1965, p. 33). Harry Byrd took care of his own, his State, two generations of fellow Virginians who trusted him to speak for them, his family and friends--both the two legged and the four legged. His hospitality was legendary.
The year before his retirement, Senator Byrd declared "Times and circumstances change, but principles do not. ...Checks and balances are not deterrents to progress. They are the basis for it..." (Lead editorial in The Richmond News Leader, November 11, 1965.)
The principles, for which Harry Byrd fought so long and so well, would have been well understood, with a most respectful following, in the golden age of ancient Attica; they were largely trashed by the mobs of history over more than two millennia thereafter. Yet they were well known among the Virginian leadership of Jefferson's day, and provided the dominant ethos at the birth of the modern American union. If they have been increasingly trashed since 1860, even with an accelerating pattern between 1930 and 1980, they have continued to form the philosophic bases for most of a still very active conservative reaction. It is in the ferment from which that the only hope for the preservation of a Jeffersonian ethic must emerge. Regardless of our fate in the 21st Century, which is still to be realized, no reasonable student of history ought to doubt that so long as there remain intelligent and reflective men, anywhere on this planet, there will be those who will seek to achieve again what Byrd labored to preserve. There is no flaw in fighting the good fight. Our time may come.
It was perhaps Harry Byrd's peculiar misfortune that his Senate career began during a great depression, in an era when a mob psychology forced lesser men to seek political advantage/survival in altering the fundamental nature of the relationship between Federal power and the States and people. It was certainly the misfortune of all of us who believe in the sanctity of previous commitments, and in the responsibility of the individual for the individual, that they succeeded in so large a measure.
It was clearly Harry Byrd's misfortune that his Senate career ended at a time when another mob psychology, under the euphemisms of "Civil Rights" and "fairness" sought to change the nature of the relationship between the States and people still further; at a time when demagogues even succeeded in involving Washington in the relationship of Doctor and patient, in every corner of this land. That was certainly a problem for the rest of us.
For much of the past generation, race relations have remained in a shambles of ill will. The Federal Budget has been kept grossly out of balance because of an involvement in the health needs or wishes of individual residents. But there have not been "too many Byrds" in the U.S. Senate. Few even seem to care that the Constitution sanctions no such Federal intrusions.
It was no flaw in Senator Byrd's character, that he stood into the breech, as it were, when the mob demanded folly. There were times in the "New Deal" days, when he cast a solitary vote against a grand scheme, that every coward, liberal or fantasy seeker in the Senate--up to 95 of them (there were only 96 in those days)--rushed to embrace; no missed opportunity for greatness, when he failed to embrace an even more unconstitutional agenda, thirty years later.
It is precisely because he kept the faith, both at home in blocking a pseudo material progress, which undermines the social order, and in Washington, where he kept alight the beacon of what a constitutional republic is all about; that he towers over his contemporaries. Senator Byrd did not "set his face against the future," but against the worst elements of his present; those which threatened any future worth the having.
Prof. Heinemann has done a most commendable amount of research; unearthed a wealth of details. Unfortunately, he does not appear to have understood the debate.
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No American journalist in the 20th Century wrote with greater clarity or precision, none with more compelling rhetoric or cadence, than James Jackson Kilpatrick, Editor of the Richmond (Virginia) News Leader in the 1950s & early '60s, who was a stalwart supporter of Senator Byrd. In 1957, he wrote The Sovereign States to challenge increasing Federal encroachment into State & local affairs. The book was not only philosophically & Constitutionally sound; it exhibited, in sparkling prose, some of the best American Conservative writing of the 20th Century. Now, 60 years later, it is available again:
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