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 Senator Byrd as a true independent,” recalled Senate historian Donald Ritchie. “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 to 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.”
And 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.