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Robert Byrd Decrepitude Watch


... going on in the Senate this week, as an intrigue emerges among Senate Democrats to try to strip Byrd of his Appropriations chair on account of being too old and doddering. The ambitious Patrick Leahy is reportedly angling for the 90-year-old chairman's seat over the next-in-line, Hawaii's sometimes catatonic Daniel Inouye.

West Virginia's senator since 1959 has been getting sicker as we head into this spring's high-stakes, $108 billion emergency supplemental budget fight. I don't blame Senate Democrats for wanting to nudge him out. To see Byrd wincingly trudging around the halls of the Senate with his walker, one particularly nervous bearded aide coaxing him along and pinning bystanders with threatening, don't-ask-questions stares, is to keep one hand on your cell phone in case of a sudden medical emergency.

But it'll take a certain degree of courage, and a confidence that a new era for Democrats has arrived: In the traditional Democratic way of doing things, young guys (that being, of course, a relative term) don't stand up to old bulls. Byrd is the very personification of old-bull politics and attitude. And he categorically refuses to go gentle. "I will continue to do this work until this old body just gives out and drops," Byrd harrumphed in June.

Today, he scheduled a surprise Appropriations hearing -- right in the midst of all the what-to-do-with-the-old-man gossip -- to, or so people said, prove he can still run the show. Before going to the hearing, I reminded myself of the aging Senate's particularly high bar for disqualifying decrepitude by reading Mike Crowley's brilliant 2001 piece on the Strom Thurmond deathwatch (sorry, unavailable online): 

On the Hill, it is common knowledge that Thurmond's staff makes the policy decisions. Indeed, one high-ranking Democratic staffer says Thurmond's longtime chief of staff, Robert "Duke" Short, "serves effectively as a senator." Short has his hands full. Thurmond is prone to embarrassing mistakes, such as when he told a local South Carolina newspaper in December that he was about to turn 88, off by a decade. When Thurmond shows up for committee hearings--an increasingly rare occurrence--he either doesn't speak or reads in a slurred and uncomprehending voice from prepared note cards.

By this standard, Byrd is a spring chicken. An unusually large number of Democratic appropriators showed up to the hearing this afternoon, presumably to support Byrd and also scrutinize him for signs of senility. A group of reporters was there on deathwatch, too: When Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson left the hearing room, a flock of scribes bolted up and hoofed after him to get his thoughts on Byrd's jowl sag and vocal tremor.

Byrd knew the stakes, and he gave a showboating, almost parodically energetic performance. "We've already poured forty-five billion dollars into Iraq," he read -- one sentence of his prepared marks is printed in huge text on each sheet -- and then broke off to bellow, "B! Capital B! Forty-five billion dollars! Forty-five billion dollars! Forty-five billion dollars!" 

The hearing's witness, Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle, seemed visibly surprised by Byrd's energy. "If I could write the contract today to look as good as you do as chairman, I'd write it today," he added at the end of his statement, looking up at Byrd. "Thank you," the senator barked. "You get an A+." 

I tend to think refusing to retire from the Senate when you obviously should is selfish. But in an age when the likes of Trent Lott and Al Wynn are quitting public office mid-term to go lobby, Byrd's desire to keep working in the Senate until one's body gives out and drops actually starts to seem pretty admirable.

--Eve Fairbanks