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Byrd Brain

On the Hill.

These days you can barely walk down the street in Washington without being accosted by some Wise Man hawking scandal advice. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is selling his complicated censure scheme. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford are marketing their own censure proposal. Sundry other formers—Lloyd Cutler, Richard Ben-Veniste, Robert Drinan—have weighed in authoritatively as well.

Now that Bimbroglio has graduated to the Senate, it's not surprising that these old lions (or perhaps "old badgers") have been joined by Democratic Senator Robert C. Byrd, the extremely senior gentleman from West Virginia and the former Senate majority leader. With his florid oratorical style and his (now-tamed) white pompadour, the 81-year-old Byrd has always looked and sounded like a grand senator (or at least like a high school student's idea of a grand senator). But, since Democrats lost the Senate and he lost the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee in 1994, Byrd has sulked in the shadows, ignored and largely powerless.

So these recent weeks have been a sweet redemption for the West Virginian. He has been glorying in the attention of journalists and other senators who are beseeching him for his deep thoughts about What the Senate Should Do. Is censure permitted? If there's a trial, what are the rules? According to a friend of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York senator sought Byrd's counsel last week in preparation for a trial. On the other side of the aisle, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said that he would look to Byrd for guidance.

Byrd's every utterance is now being analyzed ferociously for hidden meaning. When he declared on December 21, for example, that "whether there is a trial or whether there is some other solution, that decision must be made by senators, and it must be bipartisan," both sides went on the offensive. According to Republicans (or at least The Washington Times), Byrd was warning the White House to butt out and stop trying to lobby senators. According to Democrats, Byrd was giving his official imprimatur to the notion that Clinton could be censured without a trial.

To be sure, there is good reason to heed Byrd on the subject of impeachment trials in the Senate. Byrd wrote the book on it, drafting Procedures and Guidelines for Impeachment Trials in the United States Senate in 1974. He is the only senator to have been majority leader during two impeachment trials (of federal judges) resulting in conviction. He has spent his 40 years in the upper house mastering its procedural arcana. He reads and rereads Riddick's Senate Procedure. He is the author of the "magisterial" The Senate: 1789-1989. (It is always called "magisterial," which means above all that it is very lengthy.)

But, before senators pay too much tribute to Byrd's sagacity, they should ask themselves if he really is the person who should be the Senate's conscience on this issue. Byrd's level of knowledge is not so much impressive as it is frightening. His mania for the subject of rules is incredible. Byrd is the most pedantic teacher you ever had, the office manager who won't let you take a second pad of Post-Its, the kind of boss who makes his staffers take spelling tests. In short, Byrd is a legislator who has a masterful grasp of the picayune and no grasp at all of the big picture. He is the triumph of process over judgment. If you want this scandal to be resolved with technical purity, Byrd is your man. If you want it to be resolved with wisdom, look elsewhere.

In The Senate: 1789-1989, Byrd writes a truly awesome account of the rules of the Senate. There are whole chapters on filibusters, a chart comparing eighteenth century rules to current ones, a history of cloture. But what the work reveals above all is the nit-picking obsessiveness of Byrd's mind. He cares about the Senate's process more than any substance. "It is always amazing, sometimes embarrassing, to see senators who, having been here for years, reveal an utter ignorance of the rules," begins one typical section. Byrd goes on to lay out, at great length, "some procedural errors that too frequently occur in the Senate."

For example: "When a senator asks for the immediate consideration of a bill or resolution, the chair should not say 'without objection' before the clerk states the title of the measure. The title should first be stated, in order to inform the Senate what the resolution or bill is about, before the chair asks the Senate whether or not it will consent to proceed to consider the measure."

A chapter on the Senate in movies includes Byrd's astounding account of Advise and Consent. Others watch that movie and see a story about power and politics. What does Byrd see? "Advise and Consent is technically quite accurate … The actions of the senators and the presiding officer are a bit exaggerated, however, and, in several instances, not in keeping with the rules of the real Senate, as when Senator Van Ackerman couples a discharge motion, which must lie over for a day, with a motion to vote on the discharged nomination 'here and now.' Such a motion would be declared out of order by the presiding officer of the Senate."

The point is not that Senate rules aren't important or aren't necessary for an impeachment trial. They are. It is that Byrd has focused on the rules to the exclusion of, well, just about everything else. When he describes an important piece of legislation, he skips over what the legislation is supposed to do and recounts lovingly the procedural maneuvers required to get the bill passed. Majority Leader Byrd used to keep the Senate in session on Fridays much to the annoyance of his colleagues. As The Washington Post reports, when Howard Baker replaced Byrd as Senate majority leader in 1981, Byrd used to embarrass his successor by publicly correcting him about minor points of order.

It is this obsession with rules that has turned what might have been a great career into a forgettable one. Byrd is a true American success story. Abandoned by his father after his mother died, he was raised in hard-scrabble Appalachian poverty by an aunt and coalmining uncle. He worked as a welder and a butcher before getting elected to the West Virginia statehouse. In 1952 he won a seat in Congress, moved up to the Senate in 1958, then toiled his way from assistant majority whip to whip to majority leader. At every stage, he outworked his rivals. Byrd is relentlessly self-improving. He earned a law degree while in Congress, and he has given himself a marvelous classical education (a fact he will never let anyone forget). He is also incorruptible and fiercely devoted to the idea of public service as an honor.

But Byrd's congressional exploits have never matched his gumption. In 1964, he demonstrated his growing mastery of procedure by filibustering the Civil Rights Act for more than 14 hours, one of the longest such delays in Senate history. Several years later, Byrd voted against the Supreme Court nomination of Thurgood Marshall. (Byrd briefly belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in his twenties, a misstep he has apologized for but never adequately explained. He has written that, at the time, he believed the Klan was "an effective force in the struggle against communism and in the promotion of traditional American values," which sounds more like a Klan advertisement than sincere remorse.)

And, as a legislator, Byrd has accomplished little—unless you count getting most of the state of West Virginia named after him. In 1988, he retired from the majority leader's job to chair the Appropriations Committee. He used that position to uproot government agencies from D.C. to West Virginia, relocating parts of the Coast Guard, Treasury Department, FBI, ATF, and other departments to the Mountain Stale. ("He has become the most important economic factor in our state," an aide to West Virginia's governor said in 1991.) As for Byrd's major senatorial achievements, they are all procedure-oriented nonachievements: he blocked the Balanced Budget Amendment, thwarted the line-item veto for years, and slowed down Republican Contract with America legislation in 1995.

Byrd is a kind of simulacrum of a senator. He does everything that a senator is supposed to do except what truly matters: pass good ideas into law. He drafts rules, performs parliamentary maneuvers, delivers pork, and gives speeches. And Lord, does he speechify! Every appearance in the Senate chamber is an occasion for a history lesson, another chance to show off. In 1994, he quoted every Shakespeare play on the Senate floor. Last year's highway funding bill prompted an endless soliloquy on the roads of the Persian empire and the horse of the emperor Darius. His September 9 stem-winder on the Lewinsky scandal, "No Rush to Judgment," wound from the poetry of Omar Khayyám to Jesus among the Pharisees to Ecclesiastes to George Washington to sundry other Founding Fathers to an obscure patriotic poem to Alexander Hamilton.

Come to think of it, perhaps there is a reason to be glad Byrd will be so zealously monitoring Senate compliance with its rules on impeachment. One of those rules says that, during the trial, senators—even very, very senior senators—must remain silent at all times.

David Plotz is the editor of Slate.