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Fresh Air Remembers Sen. Robert Byrd

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Fresh Air Remembers Sen. Robert Byrd

Remembrances

Fresh Air Remembers Sen. Robert Byrd

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TERRY GROSS, host:

I had the chance to talk with Senator Robert Byrd in 2004 about his life. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of that interview. Byrd died at 3 a.m. at the age of 92. He'd been in failing health. During the health care debate he was brought into the Senate in his wheelchair to cast his vote. Byrd was a Democrat from West Virginia who served in the Senate for 51 years and in the House for six, making him the longest serving member of the Senate and of Congress. In the Senate he'd served as majority and minority leader and president pro tem.

I spoke with him when his book "Losing America: Confronting A Reckless and Arrogant Presidency" was published. It was about his opposition to the Bush administration. Before the U.S. began to bomb Iraq, Byrd made a now famous speech in which he criticized the Bush administration for embarking on the first test of a revolutionary doctrine of preemptive war. He criticized his fellow senators for being ominously dreadfully silent. No debate. No discussion.

In your now famous speech of February 12th, 2003 about 35 days before we bombed Iraq, you called President Bush reckless and arrogant and you criticized your fellow senators. You said: We stand passively mute in the U.S. Senate paralyzed by our uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.

This speech appeared on many Internet sites. It was translated into many different languages. It, even for people who weren't necessarily paying that much attention to your career, you became famous. What difference do you think this speech actually made in the Senate?

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): I'm not sure that I could measure that. I thought that it's something that I felt strongly. I was astonished to see a Senate which I've long, long come to revere, stand mute. The men who were there and the one woman who was there when I came to the Senate would not have stood still. How changed the Senate was. How intimidated the members were. How afraid they were, many of them, of being called unpatriotic if they didn't support the commander-in-chief.

GROSS: Now you had been concerned that by giving the president authority to launch a preemptive attack on a sovereign nation that it would redefine the nature of defense and reinterpret the Constitution to suit the will of the executive branch. Do you feel like we've set that precedent now?

Sen. BYRD: Yes. Oh yes. But we've got to get back from that. We've got to withdraw from that foolish moment and the foolish act that we did. We've got to take that power back from the president. You see the framers wrote the Constitution. And when they gave to the Congress the power to declare war they were giving to the Congress the power to declare war and they were not thinking in terms of one person or even one body.

It takes two bodies, the House and the Senate, to declare war and it takes many people. And here we were, here we were acquiescing to an administration that doesn't really understand the role of the Senate and we were shifting to one man this awesome power. And then we were relegating to ourselves the position of doing nothing. We relegated ourselves to the sidelines and that's where we are today.

GROSS: On March 18th, 2003, you said this on the subject of a preemptive attack on Iraq, you said: I have urged the president to step back and reconsider his decisions, but the administration has its eyes shut, its ears covered and its mind closed.

What are some examples of how you think the administration closed its mind?

Sen. BYRD: It doesn't listen. It doesn't listen to Congress. It looks upon the Congress with disdain. It just pains me that here is an administration that doesn't seem to understand the Constitution. It doesn't understand that the Constitution is we the people of the United States. It doesn't understand that preamble. And some examples, well, one example would be the creating of the department of Homeland Security. It was hatched out in the bowels of the White House by four men especially, Tom Ridge, fine man, former governor of the state of Pennsylvania. He was one. Another was the chief counsel, a man by the name of Gonzalez. Another was the head of the Office of Management and Budget. And the final one was the man who's down at the White House, the head of staff, Andrew Card. Those four hatched this idea and the Congress wasn't counseled, wasn't asked any question.

GROSS: I know you voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution...

Sen. BYRD: I did.

GROSS: ...which authorized the president to use force to repel armed attack and prevent further aggression in Vietnam. My understanding is that you came to regret that vote.

Sen. BYRD: I do regret that. And Senator Morris, who was one of the two - the other one was Ernest Gruening of Alaska - Senator Morris said that we would live to regret our vote. We have. I regretted my vote. Let me say this about that. We were misled by an administration. We've been misled in this instance when the president of the United States and those super hawks around him brought us in to this war which should never have been fought.

But let's go back to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. One thing about that, it had a sunset provision which allowed the Congress in a concurrent resolution, which did not have to go to the president and did not have to be signed by the president, could sunset that provision. In this case, in the resolution that was passed on October 11, 2002, there's no provision to sunset the action.

I said look, if we're going to be fools enough to shift this power to one man, to a president of the United States - and George Bush in particular - we ought to at least sunset it. I couldn't believe it, that the Senate was willing not only to give this power to the president, but also to leave it there.

GROSS: You've criticized the Senate for becoming the errand boy of the White House.

Sen. BYRD: Yes, yes.

GROSS: Does the Bush administration interact with the Senate any differently than the other 10 presidents that you've worked with in your years?

Sen. BYRD: I think that the Bush administration expects every Republican senator to toe the mark. And I feel that the unwritten rule on the other side of the aisle, as I've observed it, I think that they feel that the first thing, the last thing and the thing to do always is to support the president. And they speak the words commander-in-chief as though those words were sacred. And it saddens me when a political party follows a president as though he were the king. And I've said from time to time, the commander-in-chief, why, there was a commander-in-chief in the civil war in England and Charles the First used that term in 1639.

The term commander-in-chief, that's nothing new. That term did not originate with the framers in Philadelphia. It's meant to indicate that the civilian -that the military is under the civilian rule. That's what it's there for. It's not some sacred thing that has some innate power within itself, but knowing these days, my friends across the aisle use that term, the commander-in-chief. Well, he's not the commander-in-chief of the Senate. He's not the commander-in-chief of industry in this country. He is the civilian authority who is over the military. That's it. So that - and back to your question, yes, the Republicans follow their commander-in-chief come hell or high water, it seems to me, and they all stand in line. I've never seen anything like it.

GROSS: Is this true of Democrats and Republicans?

Sen. BYRD: Well, it's true of Republicans, but it has not always been true of Republicans. I think of men like George Aiken and Norris Cotton and Everett Dirksen. These were men who stood on their own. And if it meant that they would break with the president, they did so.

GROSS: Now correct me if I'm wrong, but in 2001, you were president pro tem, and you were third in line - third in line of success in the presidency. What was your reaction when you learned that after September 11th, the Bush administration activated what you've described as a shadow government of about 100 senior executive branch officials to live and work secretly outside Washington in a system reportedly run by the White House?

Sen. BYRD: Well, I was surprised that I'd not been contacted by the White House or by the administration. This was typical of the Bush administration. Here they were now, they created a shadow government. They didn't let the president pro tem of the Senate know anything about it. I read about it in the newspaper. This is typical of the administration. It is secretive. It likes to operate out of the White House. I don't think it understands the role of the Legislative Branch under the Constitution. The sovereignty rests with the people of the United States, and that's why this administration has left - has left the Constitution. It has left the people, and it's driven by an urge to acquire more power.

(Break)

GROSS: Senator Byrd, I'd liked to talk a little bit about your life. I know that your mother died in 1918 during the flu epidemic, and then you were basically adopted by, I believe it was an aunt and uncle.

Sen. BYRD: My mother died on Armistice Day, 1918. I was - I lacked a few days being one year old. Before my mother died, in anticipation that she might not recover from the flu, she asked my father to, if she didn't recover, to give "the baby," quote/end quote - I was the baby. I had three older brothers and a sister. I was the baby. And it was her wish that the Byrds, one of my father's sisters and her husband, take me and raise me. And so on the night of Armistice Day, my mother went to heaven. And it is because of her wish that I'm a senator today. My mother's prayer, my mother's wish was that I be something. She said I was going to be the president of the United States, and she died. I know that she, that her prayers have followed me.

Now the people who took me, they were good people. The man who took me was named Titus Dalton Byrd, B-Y-R-D. And married one of my natural father's sisters. Her name was Vlurma, and I was given the name of Robert Carlyle Byrd by them. And I've met kings and shahs and presidents and governors, and the greatest man I've ever met was that man who raised me, Titus Dalton Byrd. He was poor, but he was honest.

GROSS: Now, you grew up during the Depression. Early in your, I guess, teenage years and early adult life, you made a living in a number of different ways. You were a gas station attendant. You were a welder. You ran a store. I think you owned a store actually with your wife. Then you went to law school, and then first ran for the State House in West Virginia, then for Congress, then for Senate.

Sen. BYRD: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: I believe it was early in your political career that you briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan. Now most people know that that was a brief part of your history. Why did you join?

Sen. BYRD: I joined for a number of reasons. In that day and time, things were different than they are now. There was a time when my - the man who - Mr. Byrd who raised me joined the Klan. And in those days, many of the outstanding men and women in the communities, I am told - was told then - were members. Lawyers, judges, bankers and others were in the Klan, and so I joined it.

I've regretted that. I've apologized for it. There's nothing more I can do, except I speak plainly when I condemn the Klan and its tactics. I've, I think, improved and grown since that time. And I would say - I would urge young men not to join the Klan. But I've always been so sorry that I joined the Klan.

GROSS: You know, you've been talking earlier, about how divisive America is and how disappointed you are in the Senate for not speaking up and acting independently of the president's wishes. But when you flip back to this period of America, and are we talking about the 1950s - '40s?

Sen. BYRD: 1940s.

GROSS: 1940s. I mean to think that a young congressman like yourself felt that it was an important part of...

Sen. BYRD: No. No. No. No.

GROSS: Go ahead.

Sen. BYRD: No. No. I was not a congressman when I joined. This was before I got into politics.

GROSS: This was when you were in business?

Sen. BYRD: Well, no, I wasn't in business.

GROSS: Even before that?

Sen. BYRD: I was a meat cutter.

GROSS: Oh.

Sen. BYRD: I was a meat cutter. You see, at first I started out as you say, in the gas station, then I was a produce salesman, then I was a meat cutter. All this was in the coal camps in southern West Virginia where the atmosphere was southern, where many - the people who boarded at my mom's house - I call my aunt my mom. I never knew any other mother but this woman. She never kissed me in my life but she was stern, very religious and she didn't wear it on her sleeve. She didn't go around condemning other people and wearing religion on her sleeve, but she was a great woman. And so times were different then. But I was not in Congress at that time.

I - my having erred by joining the Ku Klux Klan had long been publicized during the campaigns when I ran for Congress. But I didn't join the Klan when I was in Congress.

GROSS: Finally, as a lot of our listeners know, in addition to having served in the Senate for many years, you have also fiddled for many years. You love bluegrass music and you recorded an album in 1978 that we have a copy of. And I'd like to end with some music from that recording. Is there a track from the album that you recorded in 1978 that you'd like us to close with? Do you have a favorite track?

Sen. BYRD: "There's More Pretty Girls Than One" on there, and I think that'd be good.

GROSS: Sure.

Sen. BYRD: Because I hope that my wife listening. We've been married, you know, 67 years. I love her and I'd like to send this to her, if I might have that privilege.

GROSS: Of course. So you're dedicating this one to your wife?

Sen. BYRD: Yes.

GROSS: Absolutely.

Senator Byrd, thank you so much.

Sen. BYRD: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Robert Byrd died at 3AM at the age of 92. Our interview was recorded in 2004. His wife, Erma Ora Byrd, died in 2006.

(Soundbite of song, "There's More Pretty Girls Than One")

Sen. BYRD: (Singing) There's more pretty girls than one. There's more pretty girls than one. Every town I ramble around, there's more pretty girls than one.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "There's More Pretty Girls Than One")

Sen. BYRD: (Singing) Little girl you turned me down. You left me all alone so I'm leaving you this lonesome song to sing when I am gone.

There's more pretty girls than one. There's more pretty girls than one. Every town I ramble around there's more pretty girls than one.

Look down that lonesome road. Hang down your little head and...

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