Sustained Outrage

Sen. Byrd speaks: A look backward

In this Jan. 30, 1974, file photo Senate Majority Whip Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., says his ambition is to be the Senate’s next majority leader in Washington. Byrd carried himself like a man from another century. Dead Monday, June 28, 2010, at age 92, he very nearly was. His words seemed to spring from the flourish of a quill pen dipped in ink. He could channel Cicero and recite the names of all British monarchs in order.

On March 21, 1980, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd launched a unique historical project – an unprecedented series of addresses on the Senate’s history and operations. These essays, later revised and published, became the centerpiece of the Senate’s 1989 bicentennial commemoration (From The Soul of the Senate site):

Clio being my favorite muse, let me begin this evening with a look backward over the well-traveled road of history. History always turns our faces backward, and this is as it should be, so that we might be better informed and prepared to exercise wisdom in dealing with future events.

“To be ignorant of what happened before you were born,” said Cicero, “is to remain always a child.”

So, for a little while, as we meet together in this hallowed place, let us turn our faces backward.

Look about you. We meet tonight in the Senate Chamber. Not the Chamber in which we transact our business daily now, but the Old Senate Chamber where our predecessors wrote the laws before the Civil War. Here, in this room, Daniel Webster–he moved about the Chamber from time to time–Daniel Webster orated, Henry Clay forged compromises, and John C. Calhoun stood on principle. Here, Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Senator Benton ripped open his coat, and said, “Let the assassin fire!” And, “Stand out of the way.” Here the eccentric Virginia Senator John Randolph brought his hunting dogs into the Chamber, and the dashing Texas Senator, Sam Houston, sat over here to my right; he sat at his desk whittling wooden hearts for ladies in the gallery. Seated at his desk in the back row, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was beaten violently over the head with a cane wielded by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who objected to Sumner’s strongly abolitionist speeches and the vituperation that Sumner had heaped upon Brooks’ uncle, Senator Butler of South Carolina.

The Senate first met here in 1810, but, because our British cousins chose to set fire to the Capitol during the War of 1812, Congress was forced to move into the Patent Office Building in downtown Washington, and later into a building known as the Brick Capitol, located on the present site of the Supreme Court Building. Hence, it was December 1819 before Senators were able to return to this restored and elegant Chamber. They met here for 40 years, and it was during that exhilarating period that the Senate experienced its “Golden Age.”

Here, in this room, the Senate tried to deal with the emotional and destructive issue of slavery by passing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That act drew a line across the United States, and asserted that the peculiar institution of slavery should remain to the south of the line and not spread to the north. The Missouri Compromise also set the precedent that for every slave state admitted to the Union, a free state should be admitted as well, and vice versa. What this meant in practical political terms was that the North and the South would be exactly equal in voting strength in this Chamber, and that any settlement of the explosive issue of slavery would have to originate here in the Senate. As a result, the nation’s most talented and ambitious legislators began to leave the House of Representatives to take seats here in the Senate Chamber. Here, they fought to hold the Union together through the omnibus compromise of 1850, only to overturn these efforts by passing the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

The Senators moved out of this room in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War. When they marched in procession from this Chamber to the current Chamber, it marked the last time that leaders of the North and South would march together. The next year, the South seceded, and Senators who had walked shoulder to shoulder here parted to become military officers and political leaders of the Union and of the Confederacy.

This old Chamber that they left behind is not just a smaller version of the current Chamber. Here the center aisle divides the two parties, but there are an equal number of desks on either side–you will count 32 on one side and 32 on the other side–not because the two parties were evenly divided but because there was not room to move desks back and forth depending on the size of the majority, as we do today. That meant that some members of the majority party had to sit with members of the minority. It did not matter to them. The two desks in the front row on the center aisle were not reserved for the majority and minority leaders as they are now, because there were no party floor leaders at that time. No Senator spoke for his party; every Senator spoke for himself. There were recognized leaders among the Senators, but only unofficially. Everyone knew, for example, that Henry Clay led the Whigs, but he would never claim that honor. Clay generally sat in the last row at the far end of the Chamber so he could talk to Senators as they came in to vote.

The Senate is Still the Same Institution

The Senate left this Chamber because it outgrew the space. When they first met here in 1810 there were 32 Senators. So many states were added over the next four decades that when they left in 1859, there were 64 Senators. Yet, while the Senate had increased in size, it was essentially the same institution that the Founders had created in the Constitution. Today, another century and four decades later, and having grown to 100 Senators, it is still essentially the same institution. The actors have changed; the issues have changed; but the Senate, which emerged from the Great Compromise of July 16, 1787, remains the great forum of the states.

This is so, largely, because as a nation, we were fortunate to have wise, cautious people draft and implement our Constitution. They were pragmatists rather than idealists. James Madison, particularly, had a shrewd view of human nature. He did not believe in man’s perfectibility. He assumed that those who achieved power would always try to amass more power and that political factions would always compete out of self-interest. In “The Federalist Papers,” Madison reasoned that “in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the government; and, in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” Madison and other Framers of the Constitution divided power so that no one person, no single branch of Government could gain complete power. As Madison explained it: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

However, ambition has not always counteracted ambition, as we saw in the enactment by Congress of the line-item veto in 1996. Just as the Roman Senate ceded its power over the purse to the Roman dictators, Sulla and Caesar, and to the later emperors, thus surrendering its power to check tyranny, so did the American Congress, the Senate included. By passing the Line-Item Veto Act the Congress surrendered its control over the purse, control which had been vested by the Founding Fathers here in this legislative branch.

The Legislative Branch Must Be Eternally Vigilant

This brings me to the first point that I would like to leave with you this evening. It is this: the legislative branch must be eternally vigilant over the powers and authorities vested in it by the Constitution–eternally vigilant. This is vitally important to the security of our constitutional system of checks and balances and separation of powers. George Washington, in his Farewell Address of September 17, 1796, emphasized the importance of such vigilance:

It is important likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those intrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department, to encroach upon one another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. . . . The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions of the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern. . . . To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.

Each Member of this body must be ever mindful of the fundamental duty to uphold the institutional prerogatives of the Senate if we are to preserve the vital balance which Washington so eloquently endorsed.

During my 46 years in Congress, and particularly in more recent years, I have seen an inclination–I think I have–on the part of many legislators in both parties to regard a chief executive in a role more elevated than the framers of the Constitution intended. We, as legislators, have a responsibility to work with the chief executive, but it is intended to be a two-way street. The Framers did not envision the office of President as having the attributes of royalty. We must recognize the heavy burden that any President bears, and wherever and whenever we can, we must cooperate with the chief executive in the interest of all the people. But let us keep in mind Madison’s admonition: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

As Majority Leader in the Senate during the Carter years, I worked hard to help President Carter to enact his programs. But I publicly stated that I was not the “President’s man”; I was a Senate man. For example, in July 1977, I opposed President Carter’s plan to sell the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) to Iran. Iran was then a military ally of the United States, but I was troubled over the potential security risks involved and the possibility of compromising highly sophisticated technology in that volatile region. I was concerned that the sale ran contrary to our national interests in maintaining a stable military balance and limited arms proliferation in the Middle East. Both Houses of Congress had to vote disapproval resolutions to stop the sale. I enlisted the support of the then-Republican Minority Leader, Howard Baker. Senator Baker was someone who could rise above political party when he believed that the national interests required it, just as he did during the Panama Canal debates. The Carter Administration chose to withdraw the sale of AWACS temporarily. Shortly afterwards, the Iranian revolution occurred and the Shah was replaced. Had the sale gone through as planned, those sophisticated aircraft would have fallen into the hands of an unfriendly government. As so often has happened in our history, individual courage and character again chartered our course.

To Rise Above Party

This brings me to my second point. On the great issues, the Senate has always been blessed with Senators who were able to rise above party, and consider first and foremost the national interest. There are very worthy examples in Senate history.

When I came to the Senate in 1959, artists were at work painting five porthole portraits in the Senate reception room. The Senate had appointed a special Committee chaired by Senator John F. Kennedy to select the five most significant Senators in Senate history. This was no easy task, because there were many potential candidates. In setting the criteria, the Committee looked to Senators who had stood firm for principle, who had not blown with the winds, and who had made personal sacrifices for the national good. They were not saints, nor were they perfect men. Daniel Webster’s personal financial dealings left an eternal blot upon his record; yet, he deserved to have his portrait in the Senate reception room, not simply as a great orator but as a man who sacrificed his own political standing by endorsing the compromise of 1850, which was deeply unpopular in his home State of Massachusetts, but which he realized was the best chance to hold the Union together.

In my almost 46 years in Congress, I have seen other courageous Senators. I have already referred to the courage demonstrated by former Senator Howard Baker during the Panama Canal debates. Without Senator Baker’s support, the Panama Canal Treaties would never have been approved by the Senate. We needed two-thirds; we were swimming uphill. The odds were against us. The killing of American servicemen in Panama would have gone on, but Senator Howard Baker threw his shoulder behind the wheel and helped to construct what he and I referred to as leadership amendments, amendments which protected U.S. interests in that region, and we both worked shoulder to shoulder against great odds, as indicated by the polls. We did so because we believed, after careful study, that the treaties were in the best interests of the United States. There are people in my own State of West Virginia who still don’t believe that. But I was convinced of it.

Howard Baker knew what my old majority leader, Mike Mansfield, and all students of the Senate’s institutional role know. Political polarization–too much emphasis on which side of the aisle one sits, is not now, and has never been, a good thing for the Senate. I am talking about politics when it becomes gamesmanship or when it becomes mean-spirited or when it becomes overly manipulative, simply to gain advantage. I am not talking about honestly held views or differing political positions. Those things enrich our system. Americans have always loved a good debate. And that is what I believe they wish for now: more substantive and stimulating debate and less pure politics and imagery. But I well understand history and its ebb and flow, and I well know that we live in an age of imagery. It is simply my wish that, sometime soon, the rising tide of imagery and partisanship will begin to ebb rather than to flow quite so freely.

Washington, in his farewell address, warned us against the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” when he said:

. . . in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming, it should consume.

So, I believe that the American people are more than tired of partisan warfare. I believe they wish for less of it from the Congress, especially in the Senate, where more statesmanship and a longer view are still expected. Declining participation in elections, and repeated public surveys which indicate weariness, distrust, and alienation within our system ought to serve as a harbinger to be ignored at our peril.

It must be a matter of concern to all of us that all too few Americans look to officeholders for inspiration in these troubled and turbulent times. How can we attract the talent needed to serve in public office in future years if elected officials continue to be held in such low esteem? I would very much like to see a rekindling of basic faith in our leaders, and a renewal of interest in politics and of public service. But the existence of inspiring leadership by public officials is fundamental to a shoring up of that faith.

In fact, I think the American people are in desperate need of some old-fashioned heroes. Now, it seems, today’s heroes, if we want to loosely use the term, are merely celebrities–rock stars who spout deplorable messages, or sports figures who amass fortunes advertising baggy clothes at exorbitant prices. I’m not talking about Sammy Sosa. I’m not talking about Mark McGwire. They are my heros, too, as was Babe Ruth in 1927. Not much to look up to here, I say. Not much to build dreams on.

Look hard at the content of our popular culture. There is really nothing much to inspire and look up to. And regrettably there also is not much to counter the empty commercialism which is so prevalent today. It has become the norm.

The Duty Beyond Our Duties

So where are we in all of this? What is our role? What part can we as Senators–authority figures, statesmen representing the people –play while we simultaneously endeavor to carry out our 200-year-old mandate, bequeathed to us by some of the most brilliant men of their age, or of any age before or since?

Well, we can show up for roll call votes, carry out our committee assignments, issue the obligatory press releases, dutifully follow up on constituent requests, and answer our mail. All of these are necessary and to a greater or lesser degree important. But a reemphasis by the Senate on our strict institutional role is certainly something which I would like to see. It is a sobering and heavy responsibility all by itself, and its very weightiness tends to cool the over-heated passions of political demagoguery. After all, that role is, in a constitutional sense, the reason we are here. The Framers expected a zealous defense of our powers to keep the tyrants at bay.

But there is still another role–an intangible something–that we who are privileged to sit in this body, and indeed leaders in the private sector, as well as those who write and reflect upon the news, are called upon to play. I call it the duty beyond our duties. The duty I am talking about is the duty to endeavor to inspire others and to demonstrate, through personal example, that public service of all types ought to be an honorable calling. Contrary to what many believe, it is absolutely the wrong place for the slick and the insincere.

Serving the public in a leadership role demands honesty, hard work, sacrifice, and dedication from those who dare to ask the people for such an awesome trust. Those who ask to shoulder that mantle also shoulder a much larger personal obligation than many of us may regularly contemplate.

Mr. Leader, we all have a clear responsibility to serve as role models to inspire our people, and particularly our young people, to be and to do their best. On that score, we politicians, as a group, generally miss the mark. Perhaps it’s because power, whether it be the power of political office, or the power to run giant corporations, or the power to report and analyze events, is a very heady thing. It can lead to arrogance, self aggrandizement, disregard for playing by the rules, and contempt for the people who send us here. It can lead us to forget that we are servants, not masters.

In the real world, exemplary personal conduct can sometimes achieve much more than any political agenda. Comity, courtesy, charitable treatment of even our political opposites, combined with a concerted effort to not just occupy our offices, but to bring honor to them, will do more to inspire our people and restore their faith in us, their leaders, than millions of dollars of 30-second spots or glitzy puff-pieces concocted by spinmeisters.

These are troubling times for our nation and our people on both the national and international fronts. For our country to weather the rough seas ahead, we must use our most tempered judgments and seek out our best and most noble instincts. Our example here can be a healing element–a balm to salve the trauma of distrust and disillusionment too long endured by a good people. Let each of us follow his or her own conscience when it comes to issues, but as we do so, may we be ever mindful there are people watching us, and the people who sent us here can take us back home again. Let us be aware of the sublimely uplifting part which the example of simple dignity, decency, decorum, and dedication to duty can play in the life of a nation.

Let us also remember that even after two hundred years, the Senate is still the anchor of the Republic, the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation. It has had its giants and its little men, its Websters and its Bilbos, its Calhouns and its McCarthys. It has been the stage of high drama, of comedy and of tragedy, and its players have been the great and the near great, those who think they are great, and those who probably never will be great. It has weathered the storms of adversity, withstood the barbs of cynics and the attacks of critics, and provided stability and strength to the nation during periods of civil strife and uncertainty, panics and depressions. In war and in peace, it has been the sure refuge and protector of the rights of the states and of a political minority because great and courageous Senators have always been there to stay the course and keep the faith. And it can do so again as long as we are ever blessed in this august body with those who hear the clear tones of the bell of duty, the Senate will continue to stand–the great forum of constitutional American liberty!