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.

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.

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!”

This Issue

August 12, 2004