Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, learned how to be a United States senator under the tutelage of serious men. When he arrived in 1959 Lyndon Johnson was majority leader and in some ways as powerful as the President, who was General Eisenhower. Committees were run by shrewd old tyrants who had been senators almost forever. Carl Hayden, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, had been a sheriff in the Arizona Territory before it entered the Union.
Mostly Southerners and deeply racist, these chairmen were still perpetuating segregation nearly a century after Appomattox. Only greenhorns and a few warrior liberals like Paul Douglas of Illinois dared challenge them. I vividly recall the august Richard Russell of Georgia, the only human being I have ever seen who could actually look down his nose when compelled to notice someone unworthy, disposing of a young corn-belt colleague who had challenged him in debate. Such ignorance of the Constitution as this fellow had just displayed, said Russell, was only to be expected from “a senator who comes from a state that was not a state before there was a Union.”
Senate roll calls filled the floor with men destined to be known to millions—John F. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, Everett Dirksen, Strom Thurmond—and a dozen others whom no sensible president dared offend, among them Robert Kerr of Oklahoma, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, Styles Bridges of New Hampshire, Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, John Stennis of Mississippi, Russell Long of Louisiana. Serious men.
Most of the grandees were Democrats, for Democrats had been in the majority for most of the previous thirty years. So long accustomed to power, they had become arrogant in its uses. Warren Duffee, Senate correspondent for United Press, greeted Tennessee’s octogenarian Senator Kenneth McKellar one morning in a hallway by saying, “How are you today, Senator?” In reply McKellar raised his cane and gave Duffee a mighty whack across the shoulder. Duffee figured the old man considered the greeting an impertinent comment on his failing health.
In those years a senator was somebody. Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican, was able to humiliate a Republican president for two years by terrorizing his generals and diplomats. Eisenhower’s nominee for secretary of commerce, Lewis Strauss, was rejected because a single Democratic senator detested him.
Even John Kennedy’s eight years of membership did him no good once he moved into the White House. Shortly after the 1960 election Albert Gore Senior of Tennessee, father of the recent presidential nominee, was privately predicting that Kennedy would have trouble getting a program through the Senate because so many of the old-timers disdained him as a lightweight who had never applied himself seriously to Senate duties. Gore proved correct. Important parts of the legislation Lyndon Johnson forced through Congress after the assassination were Kennedy bills which had been kept in Senate freezers for nearly three years.
A senator of that era who too flagrantly played political lackey to the president had to endure the contempt of his colleagues. The Senate—by God and by Madison!—was not created to mouth lines scripted by the White House’s paid hacks. The Senate was created to prevent presidents from governing recklessly and to bring them to their senses when they persisted in governing recklessly anyhow.
The awkward truth of course is that the Senate in which Robert Byrd learned the ropes was utterly and complacently undemocratic, just as the founders designed it to be. The constitutional design is still unchanged: six-year terms still insulate members against the political passions which bedevil presidents and House members; with each state limited to two votes regardless of size, small and sparsely settled states still enjoy lopsided power over the teeming masses. Yet the character of the Senate, as Byrd laments in Losing America, has changed severely and, in his view, alarmingly.
This change, he says, enables George Bush’s “rogue White House” to get away with a broad assault on the Constitution. He finds Congress “unwilling to assert its power, cowed, timid, and deferential toward the Bush administration, a virtual paralytic.” While traditional American liberties, as well as its own powers, are being overridden by the Bush circle, Byrd writes, Congress chooses to “just salute the emperor and then stand down,” as it did in granting the President a free hand to make war in Iraq.
Byrd disapproves of the war, and almost everything else about the Bush administration, including the character and behavior of the President himself. Many Democrats have become disapprovers since Bush’s popularity polls began sinking, but Byrd disapproved back when the false alarms about “weapons of mass destruction” had hard-headed politicians wishing the President godspeed to Baghdad.
Bush’s several reversals during the past few months have made him seem a somewhat less overbearing political force than he was when Byrd began writing this book. Even the Supreme Court, which had arbitrarily chosen Bush for the presidency, now seems impatient with his arbitrary assertion of authority to lock up arbitrarily selected persons and throw away the keys. Congress, however, made no objection to this or any of the other new police powers which the White House sought after September 11. Was the Chateau d’If being restored at Guantánamo Bay? As Byrd notes, Congress was too timid even to inquire.
September 11 changed Bush’s “themeless, floundering presidency” into a formidable political force capable of compelling a potentially fractious Congress to let Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft & Company have their way. That the House of Representatives bowed so readily to the President is not surprising. Because all 435 members may, in theory, be voted out of office every two years, the House is easily stampeded during big political storms. (In real life the House is now so completely gerrymandered that it is highly unusual for a sitting congressman to lose his seat to a challenger, but House members, out of ingrained habit perhaps, continue to behave like their forebears.)
The Senate’s surrender is more interesting. Under Bush a party discipline of Teutonic severity has ensured that almost all Republicans in lockstep will vote as the President wishes. This is reminiscent of the British parliamentary system, but Congress, and especially the Senate, has had a more wayward tradition.
By bending to this kind of discipline Congress accepted a supporting role as a political tool in service to the President. Even the Senate, despite its hospitality to mavericks, malcontents, self-servers, and rascals, has found its Republicans submissive to the beat of the White House drummer. As a result, instead of moderating the House’s natural enthusiasm for radical responses to September 11, the Senate has trooped obediently along behind it.
Obedience is reinforced by punishment for the disobedient. Recently when Republicans in charge of the Armed Services Committee held public hearings on the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, they were given televised scoldings by House Republicans reciting the White House line that patriots must not make too much fuss about the matter.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, once a formidable power in shaping foreign policy, is now treated by the Bush people with undisguised contempt. Its leaders have clearly been unhappy about Iraq policy. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, told David Rosenbaum of The New York Times, “You have an administration that does not reach out to or see much value in consulting with Congress. They treat Congress as an appendage, a constitutional nuisance.”
The Senate’s readiness to fall supine before the White House pains Senator Byrd almost as much as George Bush angers him, and the result is a highly intemperate book. Its author’s disappointment in the Congress is exceeded only by his contempt for the President. Eighty-six years old, fifty-one years a member of Congress, a former Democratic leader of the Senate, former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd flails away at Bush and his docile Congress with the zeal of a campus radical.
The result is an explosion of rage bursting out of an old-fashioned liberal sermon against a dangerous and corrupt establishment. It is exciting, even exhilarating. Byrd has discovered—in the nick of time—that very old age, however heavy its hardships, can also leave one free at last. How sweet it must be for a politician, after half a century of holding his tongue, to speak his mind as Byrd does in appraising the President:
George W. Bush, a child of wealth and privilege and heir to an American political dynasty, did not pay his dues. He did not have to. His name was Bush and he ran for president because he could and because he was tapped by Republican Party poobahs. Governor Bush’s acquired skills were mostly political, gleaned from doing campaign duty for his father. His presidential campaign, really the soul of simple-mindedness, showcased only one major idea—massive tax cuts that the country clearly could not afford. That one flawed idea, combined with a mushy all-purpose and never defined concept labeled “compassionate conservatism,” provided Bush with just enough rhetoric to keep him under the radar and get him through the politics of the 2000 presidential campaign. He was, and is, carefully “handled” by political operatives who work hard to shield him from complicated or probing questions, and keep him to “bullet points” of repetition. His major talent seems always to have been in raising money. And the money poured in from the corporate interests, who knew they would have a reliable friend in the White House if Bush won.
Coming from a liberal, rough judgment on Bush is hardly front-page news, but from Robert Byrd they jolt us with evidence of George Bush’s power to make strong men quiver with rage. During his half-century in Congress no one ever accused Byrd of being a liberal, or even a hothead. When new to the Capitol he obviously absorbed Speaker Sam Rayburn’s famous advice to newcomers: “If you want to get along, go along.” Byrd was a go-along man. He was a hawk on Vietnam. He declined to battle for civil rights. Byrd was a practical fellow, and the Southerners who could make or break a new man’s career had no use for “do-gooders” and “bleeding hearts” agitating for the rights of black Americans. For a brief period Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
It is revealing that he faults Bush for not paying his dues. Byrd surely paid his. Orphaned at the age of one and brought up by an aunt and uncle, he pulled himself up out of bleakest poverty in the Appalachian coal fields; worked as a gas pumper, meat cutter, and shipyard welder; studied at a variety of small West Virginia colleges; got elected to the state legislature and then in 1952 to Congress where he spent the next fifty years building a conservative Democratic record.
On Byrd’s arrival at the Senate, Lyndon Johnson, obviously seeing a dependable ally for the future, immediately put him on the Appropriations Committee, a plum not often granted to freshman senators. Constant re-election lifted him to the committee chairmanship in 1989. It is a job that licenses its holders to pillage the federal treasury for the benefit of the good, needy folks back home. West Virginia always has a disproportionate number of needy folks, and Byrd became famous in Washington for directing federal boons their way. Washington joked about it. Newspapers occasionally reported an outbreak of terror among Washington bureaucrats who had heard rumors they were about to be relocated up some West Virginia hollow.