Because his hand was on the federal purse, Byrd was an important figure but not really top-drawer or A-list dinner material, not in a class with the headline makers, stuffed with unrevealable classified dope and byzantine circumlocution, who performed on the weekend TV talk shows. In a Senate rapidly turning into a millionaires’ club, he remained old-fashioned, countrified, slightly out of place in the modern age. He was said to be a skilled country fiddler.
After entering Congress he spent ten years off and on in night school to get his law degree. He read history with the passion of a man discovering late in life that his own age owes large debts to the past. In occasional tutorials on the floor he urged members to note how the Roman Senate’s surrender to dictatorial strong men had led to the fall of the Roman republic.
In Losing America he obviously has Rome in mind when deploring the Senate’s readiness to “salute the emperor.” As he observes in his earlier book, The Senate of the Roman Republic, it was “the progressive decline of the already supine [Roman] Senate” that led to the end of the republic. That can also happen here is the message of Losing America.
In Byrd’s view the elements required to bring down a republic are an executive insistent on unlimited power and lawmakers too timid to resist him. Such, he believes, is the present situation in Washington. In old Rome the insistent executive was Julius Caesar, who finished off the failing republic and was murdered for it by a few outraged senators. Byrd sees many presidential actions since September 11 as dangerous assaults on constitutional government and civil liberties, though he stops short of suggesting that Bush is the American Caesar.
Parallels between Rome and modern Washington can be pushed only so far before turning silly, but it is worth noting what great Julius planned to do next after he saw the Senate becoming surly about his dictatorial ways: he started planning a Middle East war against the Parthians. The Parthians were a tribe of tireless troublemakers who had murdered and beheaded Rome’s rich political general Crassus, then used his head as a theatrical prop in staging a play by Euripides. Their territory extended from Persia to the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq.
That Byrd was becoming a troublemaker went generally unnoticed until the White House asked Congress to license a presidential war in Iraq. Until then the only discontent stirring in the Senate came from an ineffectual minority composed of the usual suspects: Ted Kennedy, a handful of Democratic liberals, and, of course, John McCain, the supreme Republican sorehead who still seemed cross about the royal smearing the Bush people had given him in South Carolina’s 2000 presidential primary.
In the fall of 2002, Bush, Cheney, and the Pentagon’s civilian hawks, having decided to scratch an old itch by transforming the “war on terror” into a war in Iraq, asked for a congressional resolution of approval. This method of going to war was pioneered by Lyndon Johnson with the Tonkin Gulf resolution of 1964. In effect Congress transfers to the president its constitutional obligation to declare war but commits itself politically to financing the war and sharing responsibility for it if public opinion goes sour.
It did go sour in Vietnam, and many of Byrd’s colleagues cursed the votes they cast for LBJ’s resolution and swore they would never vote for such an abomination again. But how can a busy senator here in this frantic multitasking age be expected to study the past? They were doomed to repeat it. Byrd’s account of how the resolution came to pass begins by recalling Cheney’s war salesmanship. That Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” was beyond doubt, Cheney announced. Atomic bombs seemed possible. To wait for definitive proof, said Condoleezza Rice, was foolish in an age when the smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud.
Byrd recalls Cheney’s optimistic forecasts: Arab streets erupting in joyful welcome for Americans, extremists forced to alter their plans, moderates gaining confidence, advances for the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. “I had not heard of anything quite so naive in many years,” Byrd writes. “Cheney had to know better. Our country could not be planning to attack a sovereign Arab state, expecting nothing but joy in the aftermath.”
The war resolution Bush sent to the Capitol was “a complete handing over of congressional war power to the president,” Byrd writes. It arrived only ten weeks before the 2002 elections. When Senate Democrats caucused, only Byrd wanted to delay voting on “this huge grant of authority” until the elections were past:
We were treading here on far-reaching and dangerous ground, I said; why not slow the process down?… We had handed off too much to Lyndon Johnson with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Did no one remember that, and its tragic aftermath?
Byrd argued that delay offered political advantages for Democrats. He thought many voters would oppose attacking Iraq without evidence that it had connections to September 11. “Americans did not warm to this unilateral streak in Bush,” he writes. “This green and arrogant president had made a U-turn on our tradition of working with allies and exhausting diplomatic efforts,” and the people needed to hear more about his reaching for “unfettered power” to make war.
Byrd was shouting down a rain barrel. With elections imminent, Democrats found it safer to give the President what he wanted. “So simple to explain—terror threat, patriotism, support a popular president,” he writes. “Some senators were almost terrified at the prospect of being labeled ‘unpatriotic’—just what Bush wanted.” Among those voting for Bush were John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman. Both meant to run for president.
As passed with indispensable Democratic support, the resolution gave the President virtually unlimited authority to make preemptive war on Iraq. It was a “despicable grant of authority,” Byrd says. Only twenty-three senators voted nay. “Never in my half century of congressional service had the United States Senate proved unworthy of its great name,” Byrd writes.
What would the framers have thought? In this terrible show of weakness, the Senate left an indelible stain upon its own escutcheon. Having revered the Senate during my service for more than forty years, I was never pained so much.
In the elections four weeks later the Democrats lost control of the Senate.
For the administration’s new preemption doctrine no congressional action was required, and none was sought. Nor was there even perfunctory public discussion or debate, though it made a radical change in traditional American diplomatic and military policy. The change was simply announced, and the United States was abruptly on the road to initiating wars of aggression.
Such wars would henceforth be acceptable at the president’s discretion against nations harboring terrorists or trying to produce “weapons of mass destruction.” The decree announced American readiness to act alone in these causes and stated that no other country should match the United States in military power. Byrd is one of the few public figures who seems appalled by the new policy.
Its “zealous pledge to bring ‘democracy’ to every ‘corner of the globe’ was couched in terms indicating that the ‘gift of democracy’ might come at the point of a gun,” he writes. Equally alarming, he thought, countries thought to be seeking “weapons of mass destruction” were notified that the United States reserved the right to use nuclear weapons in dealing with them.
Before the shooting started, Byrd had become a familiar figure to C-SPAN addicts by frequently questioning Bush’s policies on the Senate floor. There was little response from constituents, though the military spirit and patriotic emotion usually run high in West Virginia. Most of the comment came from outside his state, and as the speeches gained wider notice, he writes, “an ugly tone emerged—’old man,’ ‘senile,’ ‘a traitor,’ ‘KKK’—but most were supportive.”
Byrd’s review of the Bush presidency finds only one moment to praise: the days immediately after September 11. “Who can forget the stirring images of our young president standing among firefighters…. He spoke to them from his heart…. He rallied a nation, using defiant words to tamp down the fear.”
Even so: “His remarks were often accompanied by a cocky attitude,” and he seemed to be “relishing the ‘tough guy role.’” A Bush reference to a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster when discussing Osama bin Laden invoked images of “Sheriff Bush leading a posse after a varmint.” Personalizing September 11 in this way and putting “such a gleeful focus on capturing or killing bin Laden,” Byrd feared, trivialized a complex event. Bush, he writes, was expressing a “kind of retribution-soaked anger.” His “raw simplicities” about Americans as “a nation of good folks” and the Islamic attackers as “flat evil”—”That’s all they can think about, is evil”—tended to “set one faith against another.” Therefore, “not the stuff of statecraft,” he concludes.
Byrd offers an entertaining sketch of himself brought to high dudgeon by the President’s cavalier executive style. The occasion is a White House gathering of congressional leaders summoned to learn about a bill the President wants passed. It will establish the new Department of Homeland Security. The White House resisted this idea when it was proposed by a Democratic senator but under pressure the administration has now quickly drawn up a bill to call its own. Congress as usual has not been asked for input by the four White House staff people “who secretly put it together.” The White House wants it passed in time for the first anniversary of September 11, but Congress is about to leave town for its traditional August vacation.
Its leaders are invited to the kind of White House show Byrd hates and usually avoids. Members of Congress usually serve as stage props, “rather like rolling in the potted palms.” His staff persuades him to attend the “glorified sham” anyhow. Bush offers “desultory” remarks about creating a new department and, while cameras and lights dominate the scene, thanks Congress for its advice and cooperation.
The lights go off, reporters and cameramen depart, and Bush announces he must leave to make a speech in St. Louis. Byrd asks to be heard:
I noted that the President wanted quick action on his “homeland security package” but [said] I had never been informed of what was in the “package.” I had heard one leader at the table vow passage of “this thing” by Election Day. I repeated that as yet, “I don’t know what ‘this thing’ is.” The president responded with a non sequitur, thanking me for my statement and assuring me that it would be considered. Then he promptly rose and headed out the door. Amazing. I might as well have been reciting a recipe for Christmas fruitcake. My opinion of meetings at the White House hit a new low. I was struck by the president’s dismal performance. To say it was mediocre would be a gross exaggeration. He was disorganized, unprepared, and rambling. This fellow was all hat and no cattle, as they would say in Texas. It was obvious that he had no idea what was in his Department of Homeland Security proposal, nor did he seem to care.
Byrd had sat in meetings with presidents since Harry Truman, he writes, “But this president, this Bush number 43, was in a class by himself—ineptitude supreme. This meeting with Bush the Younger topped anything I had seen, from Truman on, for absolute tripe!”