Can Washington really change?

U.S. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia

The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (Image via Wikipedia)

Last summer, the Senate lost its longest serving member, West Virginia’s Robert C. Byrd.  Following the announcement of Byrd’s passing, JMU professor John E. Guiniven remembered him in an essay that ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and numerous other outlets. Dr. Guiniven was the Senator’s press secretary from 1969-1977. He now teaches corporate communications and public issues management in JMU’s School of Media Arts and Design. The piece Dr. Guiniven wrote is one of my favorite reads of the entire year, and it gives me hope that after the rancorous election cycle that concluded this week, there can be change that makes us all more civil, more open and more productive.

With the author’s permission, I’m reprinting his piece here. As you read it, consider this: Can Washington move beyond divisive election posturing into the noble purpose of governing? Is it possible to change from acrimony to civility? I hope so. If we need a guide, the legacy of Senator Byrd is a good one.

Senator Byrd  — A man of sincerity and veracity

Walking through the U.S. Capitol on a July evening in 1974, Sen. Robert C. Byrd paused in the rotunda, the heart of the building that, arguably, is the most sacred symbol of American democracy. He stood in silence for a few seconds, thinking about Watergate, the issue gripping the nation and threatening the Constitution, then turned to his aide.

“Do you know why we’ll get through this and be stronger afterward?” he asked rhetorically. “Because we’re acting with honor. We — Democrats and Republicans — are putting the nation ahead of politics.”

That memory returned vividly to me — the aide — when I learned of the senator’s death on Monday. Other memories rushed forward as well — everyday memories: political functions in West Virginia, where he was shaking hands and talking to constituents long after other politicians had left the hall, not because he felt an obligation but because he flat-out enjoyed being with fellow West Virginians; and his devotion to his wife of 69 years, Erma, and their two daughters and their families — and the concern of both Sen. and Mrs. Byrd for the families of his Senate staff.

But the rotunda memory stood out. Initial reports of Byrd’s death understandably mentioned his long-ago membership in the Ku Klux Klan and the “pork” he delivered to West Virginia. Few focused on his role as what Clark Mollenhoff, Pulitizer Prize-winning investigative reporter, called his role as “the unsung hero of Watergate,” a constitutional crisis and national drama that was reaching its denouement on that July evening.

Byrd never apologized for securing federal projects — “pork” — for his state. “Have you ever thought of putting it in West Virginia?” he would ask officials requesting funds from his committee. There was never coercion, simply an insistence that West Virginia be considered — and he never supported a bridge to nowhere. The KKK issue, for which he did apologize early in his career, resurfaced in 1971, after his election as Senate majority whip thrust him into the national limelight. Interviewed by reporters after that victory, I remember him explaining it as:

“Racial prejudice. I’m ashamed of it, but that’s what it was. I was a product of an environment where jobs were scarce and racial tensions high. I’ve worked to overcome my prejudices, to grow.” He quoted Robert Louis Stevenson: “To hold the same views at forty as we held at twenty is to have stupefied for a score of years.”

No one in that interview questioned his sincerity or doubted his veracity. Byrd never shrank from self-examination — and he examined others just as closely, as seen during Watergate. In April 1973, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings for L. Patrick Gray to head the FBI. Gray had been acting director since May of the previous year. Each night, Byrd pored over the transcripts and the next day returned to areas where he felt Gray had misled the committee.

Under Byrd’s relentless questioning, Gray admitted destroying Watergate-related documents given to him by presidential counsel John Dean, who told him “they should not see the light of day.” The startling revelation sent reporters in that pre-cell phone era racing from the hearing room to the nearest bank of telephones, like a scene from a Perry Mason rerun. The testimony moved the Watergate cover-up nearer the Oval Office. Dean responded, saying he would “not be anybody’s scapegoat,” creating an every-man-for-himself situation. The unraveling had begun.

A month later, Archibald Cox was named Watergate special prosecutor. At his confirmation hearings, he was accompanied by Attorney General Elliott Richardson. Byrd solicited from the attorney general a promise that Cox would not be fired without first consulting the Judiciary Committee. When Richardson agreed, Byrd insisted, in the face of opposition, that Richardson make the promise under oath.

That became significant. After months of confrontations, Nixon on Oct. 20, 1973, ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused. He could not, because firing Cox would have placed him in contempt of Congress. Byrd’s insistence on the promise being made under oath had guaranteed the special prosecutor autonomy. The president fired Richardson, and Watergate effectively came to a close that Saturday night, although it dragged into the next year.

A few hours before he stopped in the rotunda that July evening, Byrd had taken a call from the White House — from John Connally, former Texas governor and Nixon’s special assistant. Impeachment hearings were being held in the House and Connally wanted Byrd’s assessment of the outlook.

“The House will impeach; the Senate will convict,” Byrd told him. Within two weeks, on Aug. 8, the president resigned.

Although members from both parties commended his bipartisanship, Byrd never spoke publicly of the role he played. There was no schadenfreude or gloating — just the kind of honorable behavior and devotion to duty that marked his lifetime of public service. He often stopped in the Rotunda — or at least slowed down — for brief moments of reflection as he walked between his office and the Senate chamber, once telling me he did so “because when I think of all those who have passed this way, it reminds me how very privileged and blessed I am to be part of this.”

Those of us who knew Sen. Robert C. Byrd also feel privileged and blessed that he passed this way.

— Dr. John E. Guiniven


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

2 Responses to Can Washington really change?

  1. Kitty says:

    I think it is very interesting that Senator Robert C. Byrd die on June 28th, the same date on which President James Madison also died in 1836. For as much as Senator Byrd loved the constitution and fought to protect it, it seems like a fitting date to share with the one nicknamed the “Father of the Constitution.”

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts about Senator Byrd.


    • grahammb says:

      How interesting! I hadn’t realized that. Thank you for pointing it out. And you are so correct about Sen. Byrd’s love of the constitution. We need more statesmen like Sen. Byrd!


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