In Memoriam: Sen. Robert C. Byrd (1917-2010)

By Abourezk, James G. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam: Sen. Robert C. Byrd (1917-2010)


Abourezk, James G., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


I first met Senator Byrd shortly after I was sworn in for my first term as a U.S. senator from South Dakota. It was January 1973.

I knew Senator Byrd was from Beckley, West Virginia, because that is where my older sister, Helen Ramey, lived. When I was in elementary school in South Dakota, I started going to Beckley in the summers to stay with her. It was a way for my parents to get me out of their hair for a month or two.

I also knew that, when he was younger, Sen. Byrd had worked as a butcher in my cousin, Fred Mickel's, small grocery store in Beckley. I had also heard that Senator Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan when he was younger. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served a few terms before running for the U.S. Senate. Senator Byrd proved himself a very hard worker, which served him well in his political career.

I found out that he used to set aside a certain amount of time each evening, when his work in the Senate was done for the day, to call a few people in West Virginia personally, introducing himself and asking how things were going in the area where the constituent lived. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he made certain that West Virginia got its share of federal money, an activity now called "earmarking"-but back then it was called, "representing your state or your district." His being a somewhat poor state, Senator Byrd's earmarking was greatly appreciated by his constituents, so much so that he was re-elected time after time, for a record number of terms in the Senate.

It was said that he always knew where the bodies were buried with respect to Senate politics, which is why he ultimately ran for, and was elected to be, Majority Leader of the Senate after Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana retired.

That was a traumatic election, to say the least. Not long after Senator Mansfield retired, the campaign to replace him began in earnest. Everyone knew that Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), Senator Byrd and Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina were going for the prize. I was conflicted in a major way. Senator Humphrey was a friend, someone who had helped me when I decided to run for the U.S. Senate. (Humphrey was originally a pharmacist in South Dakota, where he was born and raised.) I was leery of supporting Senator Byrd because of his Ku Klux Klan background. That prompted me to call Senator Hollings to tell him that I supported him for Leader. I was told that he had to make a trip to China first before he would finally decide whether or not to run for the position.

While he was gone, the pressure from the Humphrey and Byrd camps was coming down heavy on the mostly undeclared senators. The liberal Democats, of course, liked Hubert Humphrey, as did I. But I also was aware that Hubert was the leader of the "Israeli Mafia," as I called them, in the Senate. I did not want to see the strong supporters of Israel gain even more power in the Senate.

When Senator Hollings returned from China I called him and asked him to hurry and announce his candidacy. He begged off, saying he could not run under the then-current circumstances.

So I called Senator Byrd and asked for a meeting with him. When we met, I told him that I was of a mind to support him, but that I wanted him to promise to support a couple of issues in which I was interested. I wanted to create a stand-alone Indian Affairs Committee. I asked for a seat on the Steering Committee, which names other senators to the substantive committees, such as appropriations, foreign relations, judiciary, etc.

He agreed to each of my requests, so I agreed to support him. …

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