Robert Byrd: Smooth operator

Byrd_president_nixon

It’s hard to imagine the U.S. Senate without Robert Byrd. Harder still to explain just how savvy he was to people who didn’t get a chance to see him in action before age slowed him down and, unfortunately, added him to the long list of men (always men) who insisted on serving until the bitter end of their lives.

As a kid fresh out of college, I used to love watching Byrd in action on the Senate floor, pontificating on the history of the Roman Republic one day, skillfully “filling the tree” the next. And, of course, I remember my one brush with the gentleman from West Virginia…

My first job on the Hill was working for Harry Reid, then serving his first term. I was a lowly, lowly aide, starting off sorting mail for free, then wrangling a low-paying position as a grunt for all seasons — logging mail, answering phones, running errands (those long, marble halls were hard on cheap shoes), and doing whatever I could to ingratiate myself to the staffers who ran Reid’s office.

Reid was a back-bencher way back then, but the fact that Democrats held the majority meant that he had a few choice committee assignments, including a seat on Byrd’s Appropriations Committee. Reid was chairman of the legislative branch subcommittee, which means he got to help write the checks for all of Congress, including pay raises, construction etc.

In the summer of 1991, I recall that there was talk of approving another raise for lawmakers. This is never something politicians like to do, for obvious reasons, so the parties tended to work quietly behind the scenes to work out the specifics without trying to draw too much attention from the public … you know, the voters.?? This was before the dubious ratification of the 28th 27th amendment, so there were few restrictions on how Congress could go about giving itself a raise.

One day in June or July, I was manning the phones at the senator’s front desk. At that time, Reid’s office was on the second floor of the Hart Building across the hall from Maine’s Bill Cohen. The front desk had a glass wall looking out on a little bay of the building’s huge atrium, so anyone sitting there could look out and see whoever happened to be milling about on the other side of the atrium.

Usually there were two of us out front, but for some reason I was flying solo. It must have been a slow day, because I looked out across the atrium and saw Sen. Byrd walking slowly … pacing, really. He did that for about 10 minutes, and to me it seemed like he was giving me time to alert Reid’s personal assistant that the powerful Byrd was about to pay a visit.

I called the assistant (Janice), and told her Byrd was outside the office, pacing around and that she might want to make sure Reid was ready for an impromptu visit. Byrd was not on the schedule, Janice confirmed before she hung up to tell the boss.

Sure enough, Byrd wandered over to Reid’s lobby a few minutes later. He was wearing a light blue suit, I seem to remember, and he was acting like he was just out for a stroll on a lazy small town Sunday afternoon.

While we waited for Janice, Byrd admired the Nevada mementos on the lobby walls. He asked me a question about something, maybe one of the paintings, and I tried to make nervous chit-chat.?? When Janice came, Byrd put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Thank you, son.”

That’s it. My brush with Byrd. But within weeks Congress indeed approved a payraise for itself. And I have to think that Byrd’s little ballet outside Reid’s office was one small move in a larger chess game he was working to get the raise through his committee.

It was sometime in the early 1990s that Byrd gave a series of floor speeches that were really lectures on the history of the Roman senate, the Magna Carta, and the founding of the American republic. As a political nerd, I loved Byrd’s stentorian delivery of these stemwinders, and I clipped the transcripts dutifully from the Congressional Record (still tucked away in a bag with my college term papers, I believe).

Byrd was no saint. Even his colleagues couldn’t take him anymore and made sure to make George Mitchell the majority leader after the 1988 elections. He defended the filibuster from its many would-be reformers, something that has done much to paralyze the Senate for the past 20 years. But he cared deeply about the institution of government and the checks and balances of our imperfect Constitution. RIP, senator.

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