Robert Byrd
Robert Byrd; drawing by David Levine


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.


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