Byrd's-eye view of Dems dim
This longtime Democrat left his party after it demanded that he sign a pledge to support only its candidates.
Local and national Democrats branded him as an extremist, out of touch with constituents; the press judged him to be "dead meat" in the 1970 campaign to win back his U.S. Senate seat.
Undeterred, Harry Byrd Jr. -- namesake son of the legendary boss of Virginia's then-dominant Democrats -- beat the odds and won re-election. Not once but twice.
"It was a contentious time," Byrd now says. "Then again, everyone thinks they are living in the most contentious times ever. Well, they really aren't, are they?"
The longest-living former senator at age 97, Byrd still resides in his hometown of Winchester, Va., within walking distance of one of his beloved newspapers, The Winchester Star.
He served eight terms in Virginia's Senate before being appointed to his ailing father's U.S. Senate seat. He won that seat outright a year later, but the undercurrents of change already were building among Democrats.
"Liberals began ... winning local elections in the primaries over moderate and fiscally conservative Democrats," Byrd said of that shift. "You could just see it coming in successive primary elections, and that was in the '60s.
"Now, the party is barely recognizable."
He scoffs at the notion that this is the country's worst-ever time, but passionately agrees we're heading in a dangerous direction.
He served in the Senate under four U.S. presidents; he was close friends with Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, liked Clinton, but "never much cared for Carter."
After his switch to independent, he still caucused with Senate Democrats but "no one ever took my vote for granted." A staunch fiscal conservative, he introduced balanced-budget legislation four years in a row requiring that "total outlays of the federal government shall not exceed its receipts," he said. "Congress approved it, then promptly ignored it."
"Everyone regarded Sen. Byrd as a true independent," recalled Donald Ritchie, the Senate's official historian. "He changed his party during a very transitional period. It was not a peaceful time or a quiet time but no one disrespected his decision."
Byrd is an American treasure; what he did in 1970 was courageous. He saw his party's future as unacceptable, so he took a stand.
Back then, no one "tweeted" support. No cable-TV pundit rose as his advocate. No panel of experts agonized over what he should do, and no "super PAC" was in his corner, crafting clever messages.
He bucked the party machine that his late father once controlled and under which he matured politically -- not an easy course.
Democrats assumed he needed them to win, he said, insisting he needed the support of labor and blacks, the party's key constituencies. Yet their strength turned out to be all noise, no substance.
Republicans considered taking him as their candidate but fielded one of their own.
"The party insisted I depend on them," Byrd said. "I depended on the voters' common sense."
He bet that voters would show allegiance to common sense, too -- and he won, based on his record, his reputation and his understanding that people were not as aligned with parties as most experts assumed.
The Byrd family has been in the newspaper business since 1860, and "politics and newspapers are my passions," he said. He watched with fascination this year's primary process.
"I do believe that the Republicans went with the man who they believed would best handle the economy for the country," he said. "I, for one, think they were right."
He supports Republican Mitt Romney over Democrat Barack Obama, despite his love for what his old party once stood for.
"My father was adamant about fiscal discipline," he said. "So was I. I still am.
"Obama is a very skilled speaker," he continued. "In that, he has a gift. But I believe that the country needs a skilled leader who understands the nuances of generating jobs and all that goes with that -- one who understands the importance of fiscal discipline.
"That is Mitt Romney."
He chuckles at those who talk about Washington being more broken than ever, or about unrest dividing Americans.
"I guess they never heard of the '60s -- in both centuries," he said.
Salena Zito covers politics for the Trib. Call her at 412-320-7879. Email her at: email@example.com
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Norwin High School health teacher charged with selling heroin
- Man barricaded in house near West Hempfield Elementary School
- Pirates cut 12, including outfielder Tabata and pitcher Lincoln
- Penguins’ protracted slump continues with 5-2 loss at Carolina
- First trailer for Pittsburgh-shot ‘Southpaw’ hits the Internet
- Aldi to open store where Bottom Dollar closed in Garfield
- Yough senior high students evacuated for third time this week
- Freshman arrested in Burrell High School bomb threat
- Bodies of Kochu, Gray found in Ohio River in West Virginia
- Port Authority secures free North Shore light-rail service
- Bomb threat clears Apollo-Ridge High School