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Harry F. Byrd Jr.’s cautious approach to politics shaped state history.
Thursday, August 1, 2013
Cautious by nature, Harry F. Byrd Jr., often seemed to be carried along by history’s currents rather than directing them. At times he fought against those currents, most notably in his opposition to the integration of public schools. Nevertheless, his carefully calculated actions and inactions shaped state politics for decades, and his death on Tuesday at age 98 marks a notable event in Virginia history.
“Little Harry” lived most of his life in the shadow of his father and namesake, whom he resembled and whose conservative political philosophy he shared. As a youth, he often accompanied then-Gov. Byrd on official travels attired in the uniform of the executive military staff, visiting every Virginia city and county by age 13. His father “would talk to me as if I were a grown-up — a politician,” the son told Byrd Sr.’s biographer, Ronald Heinemann.
He followed his father into politics, but first followed him into journalism. After two years at Virginia Military Institute and two at the University of Virginia, but no degree, he asked to be editor of the family-owned Winchester Evening Star. His father replied, “If you make too many mistakes, you’re gone.”
In politics, Byrd Jr. was his father’s closest confidant and vice versa. The younger man declined to run for governor in 1961 because his father, then a U.S. Senator, felt it was inappropriate for two Byrds to hold statewide office. The pair also apparently feared that a gubernatorial campaign could aggravate divisions lingering over massive resistance at a time when the Byrd political organization was losing its influence. As a state senator, Byrd Jr. had been a leader in closing some public schools to avoid court-ordered racial integration in the 1950s.
When his father retired, Byrd Jr. was appointed to his U.S. Senate seat, but he did not aspire to oversee his father’s political machine. “I had seen the headaches and the heartaches and the vast problems and difficulties associated with being the political leader,” Byrd Jr. told Frank Atkinson, author of “The Dynamic Dominion,” a history of Virginia politics.
As tensions increased between conservative state Democrats and the more liberal national party, Byrd announced he would run for re-election to the U.S. Senate as an independent. He was pressed to join the GOP by President Richard Nixon, who hoped more Southern Democrats would follow. The courtship created a rift between the president and Gov. Linwood Holton, Virginia’s first Republican executive since Reconstruction, who helped nominate Roanoke Republican Ray Garland to run, unsuccessfully, against Byrd.
Again, Byrd shunned the role of leader in a political realignment and remained an independent, which allowed him to keep his committee assignments in a Democrat-controlled Senate and to retain his conservative political base in elections.
Virginia is a far different and more diverse state than Byrd had envisioned, and a better one. His political career was characterized not by progress but by staying power. He probably would be pleased to know that he outlived the Washington Post’s J.Y. Smith, one of his own obituary writers.
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