The election of Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia as Senate Majority Leader last week is proof, if any is needed, that the shortest distance between two political points is often an end run.
Elected to the House of Representatives with little to distinguish him besides his youthful talent as a butcher and onetime membership in the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd moved on to the Senate in 1958. He took one of the scruffiest leadership jobs it had to offer in 1967: secretary of the Democratic Conference. His willingness to bear onerous housekeeping chores for Whips Russell Long and then Ted Kennedy earned him a reputation as “the Senate’s garbage man.” But in the process he collected due bills that enabled him to dump Kennedy from the Whip’s job in 1971. Today, at 58, he is the most powerful man in the Senate. “He planned it that way,” says one colleague. “This is the conclusion of a well-organized, step-by-step campaign.” Byrd professes to see his victory differently: “I won by 10 years of work in the leadership ship and my record of fairness and moderation.”
He was born Robert Sale to a mother who died in his first year. His father sent him off to live with a poor aunt and uncle named Byrd. They adopted him and he grew up in Stotesbury, W.Va., a tough coal-mining town. At 16 he was valedictorian of his high school class, and three years later he married Erma Ora James, a miner’s daughter who has been his wife for 39 years. He spent the pre-WW II years as a butcher in a Crab Orchard, W.Va. grocery store. “Working hard was not a matter of choice,” he says. “It was a necessity.”
In 1946 he won a seat in the state legislature with a down-home gimmick—playing his fiddle at every campaign stop. Byrd never got an undergraduate degree, but while keeping up with his Senate duties in Washington, he attended the American University law school at night—and was graduated cum laude in 1963. His early years in Congress were marked by a voting record almost as conservative as his starchy dress. As chairman of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, for example, he moved to eliminate from the welfare rolls all women who were “living in sin.” In the late 1960s, having long since termed his Klan membership a “mistake,” he moved to soften his troglodyte image by supporting liberal legislation and campaigning for Democratic candidates of all ideological stripes.
Byrd is still not as well liked as Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey, whom he defeated for his new post. In “the most exclusive club in the world,” Byrd’s rustic qualities make him somewhat unclubbable. But he “gets a lot of stuff done,” as one senator put it. Byrd reaches his office at 7:30 every morning, works long days on the floor and returns to a modest home and an intensely private family life in McLean, Va. He enjoys occasional visits from his two married daughters and six grandchildren. His only known extracurricular activities are fiddling and occasionally jogging in place to keep in shape.
Byrd is making no prediction about what kind of majority leader he will be. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he says blandly. But as Sen. Henry Jackson put it last week: “With Byrd in charge, it will be a work session.”