Byrd’s Soiled Nest

Robert H. Dockery worked as a staffer in the United States Senate for twenty-eight years. He holds a JD from the University of Miami.

It is, I suppose, a measure of the illness of our society that we often fail to tell the truth, or the whole truth, about our leaders, whether it be General Stanley McChrystal or Senator Robert C. Byrd.  The lionizing may eventually collide with the reality, but all too often it is hidden from view by a press corps that places greater value on access than it does on exposure.

From the early fall of 1980 through the late spring of 1981, or roughly mid-way through my twenty-eight-year Senate staff career, I worked for Senator Byrd.  It was a very unpleasant experience, and I will always think of it as the low point in an otherwise relatively enjoyable career-adventure.  Accordingly, I find it impossible to reconcile the avalanche of praise with the all-too-often bullying and mean-spirited nature of the man I came to know.  At best, I believe, such praise simply represents an effort to clothe the departed in rosy accolades and, at worst, it represents the political hypocrisy that resides at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.  At their best or at their worst, the sentiments being expressed about the fabled career of the senator from West Virginia do not come close to describing the West Virginia politician—a very small man trying to do a very big job.

Celebrated as the longest-serving United States Senator in history, a career spanning more than half a century, it’s rather surprising to discover that Senator Byrd’s legislative accomplishments on a national scale—despite his vaunted Senate leadership—bring to mind Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.  Indeed, the highlights of the man’s career are generally encapsulated something like this:  He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and then he renounced it.  He helped to filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequently changed his mind, saying he should have supported it.  More recently, and to his credit, he strongly opposed legislation giving Bush The Younger the authority to wage war in Iraq, but the overwhelming vote in support of the legislation suggested that his opposition carried little weight with colleagues who now line up to extol his perceived virtues and political prowess.

But if Senator Byrd’s national legislative record was largely invisible, his parochial posture in West Virginia was the stuff of legends.  As he moved higher and higher in seniority on the Senate Appropriations Committee and eventually was handed the chairman’s gavel, he used his position to all but paper over the Mountain State with federal tax dollars.  His constituents cheered him on and rewarded him by putting his name on placards all across the state and returning him with instructions to keep ringing the National Cash Register for the folks back home.  Senator Byrd delivered so much bacon (or pork) for the people of West Virginia that one suspects if another senator had put together such a spending scheme for his state, Byrd himself would have labeled the achievement “socialism, pure and simple!”

In addition to his reputation as a senator who delivered for his state, Senator Byrd has also been lauded for his knowledge of and respect for Senate rules and traditions.  Maybe.  But let me tell you a funny story before you decide.  It goes like this, keeping in mind that conversations between a senator and a staff member are always regarded as privileged, lawyer-client kind of stuff, and never to be revealed without the senator’s permission.  Senator Byrd certainly insisted on the rule, and so did his colleagues.

Sorry, Senator Byrd, but as you can surely appreciate, historians need to know the good, the bad, and ugly.  Besides, I’m just getting to the funny part.  So here goes:  A few months after I went to work for Majority Leader Byrd as his foreign policy guy on the Senate Democratic Policy Committee (which Byrd chaired), he called the staff together late one Friday afternoon and rudely announced the dismissal of the Committee’s staff director.  Just as rudely, and with no prior consultation, he then proceeded to announce that I would be the new staff director.  Even before this event, I had seen enough to know that there was no medium-term, let alone long-term, with the West Virginia legislator.  Nevertheless, I was determined to make the best of the situation, and for the first couple of months we appeared to reach a meeting of the minds.

Then came the day when Senator X (D-South) pulled me aside on the Senate Floor and told me how pissed he and several of his colleagues were at Byrd and why.  “Pass it along to the Leader,” he instructed, “but just make sure my named doesn’t appear on the indictment.”  Then Senator X added rather sheepishly, “I’d tell him myself but I can’t take a chance it’d screw up some other things.”  As Senator X turned and darted into the Cloakroom, I assured him I would follow up. Later that day, I did follow up.  But no sooner had I passed along the information than Senator Byrd demanded to know the name of his Senate colleague.  When I refused to violate Senator X’s confidence, the Senior Senator from West Virginia made it clear that unless I did I would have a tough time paying my bills in the months ahead.  When I tried to remind Mr. Byrd of the privileged nature of the restricted portion of the conversation, he responded with a string of expletives.  If anything, the Southern Gentleman’s off-colored behavior only served to stiffen my resolve.  Senator Byrd ended his tirade on a less-than-endearing note, “Think about it, Bob, because I know you have a wife and a couple of kids at home.”

There are a lot more funny stories involving Senator Robert C. Byrd, but here’s the conclusion to this one.  I gave the ultimatum a lot of thought, discussed it at length with my wife, and then did the only thing that made sense to me:  I resigned from Senator Byrd’s employ before he fired me.  Chalk it up to a Washington tradition.

After leaving Byrd’s soiled nest, I took another position in the Senate and stayed there for an additional fourteen years before retiring in the mid-1990s.

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Nat Bates - 7/15/2010

I am not a defender of Senator Byrd. I would say that he was heroic in standing up to President George III when he attempted to become virtual dictator. I have heard other things about him that, if true, would make me reluctant to defend him.

Donald Wolberg - 7/12/2010

What a remarable narrative from Mr. Dockery, and for many reasons, mostly listed by Mr. Dockery, not unexpected. One wonders if Mr. Dockery has a book in mind that he really should write, and one also wonders when other shoes will drop regarding Senator Byrd and from what directions. During a too long, but thankfully brief tenure in Washington, I listened to Senator Byrd's versions of various things from the gallery. I heard much contrived vocalizations but not much substance and ascribed this to an old man who should have been tending a garden. I am not amazed that the Senate, too full of ego and underfilled with substance, would profusely compliment a former KKK member (and by definition someone who must have passed all the tests of letting his club fellows know how much he hated Blacks, Orientals, Jews, and of course those darn Catholics). Yet, they all attended the services, even the President and said things that were either mindlessly favorable or they really did not mean. Such is the state of politics.

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