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Harry. F. Byrd Jr. served in the Virginia and U.S. senates for a combined 35 years.
Associated Press | File 1966
Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr, D-Va. reviewing notes in preparation for a speech against the civil rights bill, on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Harry Byrd, when announcing that he would run as an independent, said he "would rather be a free man than a captive senator."
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., whose historic decision to become an independent in 1970 would decide political power in Virginia for nearly two decades, died Tuesday at his home in his native Winchester. He was 98.
Byrd, a former defender of racial segregation and stubborn advocate of discipline in the public’s finances, died about 9:20 a.m., surrounded by his two sons and daughter and many of his nine grandchildren. He had been in declining health in recent days.
Byrd’s death signals the close of an era in which Virginia politics was largely the purview of a tight-knit group of conservative white males, who, in their determination to retain power, countenanced closing public schools in the late 1950s rather than consent to court-ordered desegregation.
Byrd outlived not only that period, but its mindset. And he witnessed Virginia’s long, at times, wrenching shift, reflected most recently by President Barack Obama’s victories in the state. Obama carried Virginia in 2008 — becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1964 — and won again in 2012.
“This is a sad day in the commonwealth,” Gov. Bob McDonnell said in a statement Tuesday. “A chapter of our history has concluded; we’ve lost a good and decent person and a dedicated public servant.”
The namesake of a former governor and his successor in the Senate, Byrd was a courtly Southern conservative who ignored the advice of some of his closest friends to bolt the Democratic Party rather than bow to its growing liberalism by a signing a loyalty oath.
“The course I am taking is an uncharted one,” Byrd said in announcing his decision on statewide television on March 17, 1970. “But I would rather be a free man than a captive senator.”
Byrd, who together with his father occupied the Senate seat for 50 years, was twice elected to the Senate as an independent. Both times, Byrd received more than 50 percent of the vote against two major-party nominees — the first Senate independent to do so, according to Senate historian, Donald Ritchie.
A newspaper publisher and orchardist before entering the other family business — politics — Byrd was silver-haired, blue-eyed and apple-cheeked. He was given to a firm handshake, a deliberate speaking style and a slightly reedy laugh. He could be mischievous, occasionally telling audiences, “I bring good news from Washington: Congress is not in session.”
Elected to the Virginia Senate in 1947 — he spent 18 years there — Byrd’s signature legislation required that the state make refunds to taxpayers if its surplus exceeded a certain amount.
The measure was later at the heart of a bitter struggle between Senate conservatives and moderates over additional funding for public education. After a marathon session — it was known as the “lost weekend” — a compromise was reached, guaranteeing some money for schools and the rest for refunds.
In the U.S. Senate, Byrd — echoing his father, a former Finance Committee chairman — argued for smaller, less costly government and frequently warned of the hazards of the nation’s ballooning deficit. In 1981, Byrd saw enactment of his federal balanced-budget law. It has never been enforced.
The eldest of four children, Byrd was born in Winchester on Dec. 20, 1914. Politics was Byrd’s lodestar, guiding him to the state and national capitals.
As a boy in Richmond during his father’s governorship (1926-30), Byrd was introduced to men and women, some of whom would shape world affairs, including Winston Churchill. He could recall flying in the Spirit of St. Louis with Charles Lindbergh.
Byrd was among his father’s closest advisers, often at his side during defining moments in the state’s political history.
Virginius Dabney, former editorial page editor of The Richmond Times-Dispatch, recalled in his memoir, “Across the Years: Memories of a Virginian,” the November 1958 visit to Winchester during which publisher Tennant Bryan told the two grim-faced Byrds the newspaper was abandoning its editorial support of massive resistance to public-school desegregation.
In forsaking the Democratic Party and refusing to become a Republican, Byrd carved out a critical voter bloc in Virginia: conservative, election-deciding independents. Candidates avidly wooed them into the 1990s, after which rapid population growth and demographic shifts sharpened distinctions between the major parties.
Byrd’s maneuver was a high-stakes gamble at political survival. He not only eluded a possible primary challenge in an increasingly liberal Democratic Party, but was spared having to ingratiate himself to a GOP suspicious of the Byrd brand.
“He saw the likelihood of being defeated in the primary,” said Ronald Heinemann, a retired history professor at Hampden-Sydney College and biographer of the senator’s father, Harry F. Byrd Sr. “The road to remaining in the Senate meant adapting as an independent.”
Byrd’s decision had a profound effect, particularly on the Democratic Party, compelling more than a dozen conservative legislators to stand for re-election as independents in 1973. Henry Howell, the liberal Democratic firebrand, won the vote for lieutenant governor as an independent in a 1971 special election.
Byrd’s legacy would be a stout adherence to political independence. He resisted personal entreaties from a Republican president, Richard Nixon, to join the GOP. In later years Byrd, who endorsed Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1980, was widely viewed by members of both parties as a Republican in all but name. It was not an appellation Byrd would ever accept.
In addition to his three children — sons Tom and Harry III and daughter Beverly — and nine grandchildren, Sen. Byrd had 12 great-grandchildren.
“Senator Byrd was an iconic figure in Virginia history,” McDonnell said in his statement. “He lived through a century of immense change, both here at home and abroad, and he never sat on the sidelines.”
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