Robert Byrd is more than just a lone voice in Congress speaking out against the war. He is one of a number of people in Washington who have had enough.
And Bush will be hard put to get the 85-year-old Byrd. The senator has nothing to lose. Not only has he been in the Senate for decades (since 1958), but as a head of the Appropriations Committee for years, he’s at the heart of the legislative process. More to the point, he has been an ally of Republican business interests through his longtime defense of the West Virginia coal industry. Byrd has led the fight against pollution controls that would hurt coal sales.
Byrd began as a supporter of then majority leader Lyndon Johnson, and during the 1960s won plaudits for successfully plotting to overthrow Teddy Kennedy as whip. Kennedy at the time was immersed in the Chappaquiddick affair.
Always taking care of business, Byrd has brought home to West Virginia such plums as FBI and IRS offices, as well as a Fish and Wildlife training camp. He tried but lost a drive to settle the CIA in West Virginia. The senator has been pushing a huge highway corridor from the Virginia border deep into the central part of his state.
From his post as ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd is fighting White House efforts to privatize, on a piecemeal basis, functions of government, such as the coast guard. Privatizing removes congressional control over jobs and adds to the conservatives’ campaign to reduce Congress’s influence.
Byrd is not exactly the sort of figure that has come to typify politicians in latter-day Washington. He doesn’t go to parties, and he’s formal almost to the point of caricature. He carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution around with him.
Peter King, the Long Island conservative Republican, made a feeble attempt to launch a campaign against Byrd by resurrecting the senator’s long-ago ties to the Ku Klux Klan. On MSNBC, King declared, “Let me tell you, as a Republican, I almost welcome [Byrd’s attack on Bush]. This is handing us an issue, because the Democrats make themselves look so small and petty. And if they’re going to rely on someone like Senator Byrd as their spokesman, a man who, years ago, with his racist background gave up any right to be a moral arbiter of anything, then bring it on.”
Others in Congress have questioned the war in the mildest of terms, but Byrd has spoken plainly from the beginning, saying at one point, “I truly must question the judgment of any president who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50 percent children is ‘in the highest moral traditions of our country.’ ”
And Byrd has kept on speaking out. After watching Bush’s Top Gun act last week, the elderly senator delivered this scathing assessment of the president’s landing on the aircraft carrier: “As I watched the president’s speech, before the great banner proclaiming ‘Mission Accomplished,’ I could not help but be reminded of the tobacco barns of my youth, which served as country road advertising backdrops for the slogans of chewing-tobacco purveyors. I am loath to think of an aircraft carrier being used as an advertising backdrop for a presidential political slogan, and yet that is what I saw.”
Tom Gavin, a spokesman in Byrd’s office, said calls were running heavy and about even. Gavin said he doubts Bush would try to hurt Byrd because “President Bush relied on West Virginia to carry him through the last election.”
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine