Basic Instincts: Not The President’s Man

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By J. Michael Willard

The late US Senate Democratic Leader Robert Byrd let it be known from the start: “I am the President’s friend — but not the President’s man.”

This was his declaration to the Democratic Caucus in 1977 that elected him Senate Leader. In case it was not clear, he repeated it at his weekly, Saturday news conference.

His philosophy came into focus from almost the first day Jimmy Carter took residence in the White House, a sign of a true Leader and a red line signifying separation of powers.

In the current leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican, one can wonder whether he is President Trump’s friend, but one thing is certain: He is the President’s lapdog.

This became evident when McConnell went against his own statements and, in fact, endorsed Trump’s declaration of a phony national emergency due to a manufactured border crisis.

If it were any other person, there would have been a collective gagging sound from the Republican faithful. However, they have become accustom to McConnell’s kowtowing to Trump.

Just a month earlier, McConnell had refused to allow a vote on ending the government’s shutdown over the wall, saying even if it passed, there were not enough votes to override a veto.

There was logic but no wisdom in that surrender. What it would have done was assert the Senate’s Constitutional manhood, something that has been emasculated in recent decades.

Having worked with Byrd in a Senate staff leadership position for nearly eight years — covering president’s Carter and Ronald Reagan — I observed close-up the traits of a strong leader.

Byrd protected the Senate as an institution, as was his implied duty under the US Constitution. On the other hand, McConnell has said, in essence, “The Senate be damned”.

The Kentucky former county judge sees his duty as one of blind partisanship and protection of his own position.

During President Obama’s first term, McConnell even announced that his main goal was not better government — but to make sure Obama was a one-term president.

Byrd and Jimmy Carter were not alike.

The West Virginian grew up in a hollow, the adopted son of a coal miner. He never went to war, but worked as a welder on troop ships in WWII. Carter was the son of a wealthy Georgia peanut farmer, and graduate from the US Naval Academy.

The new President liked to jog.

The most exercise I saw Byrd do was a comic performance during a staff meeting in his office of a football game. It was hilarious to see the Leader — replete in his red vest — fall to the floor, get up, and fall again, pretending to avoid tackles.

If duty required he go to a football game, he left after the national anthem or at least by half time. He wasn’t a big sports fan. He played the violin.

Carter liked to wear jeans. Byrd said he grew out of pulling on dungarees as a child. He even, incongruously, wore a spiffy suit to tour flooded regions of southern West Virginia.

The result though was a $500 million appropriation for the state’s Tug Fork Valley, passing in the dead of night with a wink and a nod from the Republican side. Byrd knew when to hold and fold.

One night Byrd went to the White House to tell Carter his budget director, Bert Lance, needed to resign. Lance was accused of mismanagement of a bank prior to joining Carter. Lance was out the door forthwith.

The two men were too different to be close friends. However, there was a respect between them, and that made all the difference.

When Sen. Edward Kennedy announced a challenge for the Democratic Presidential nomination against Carter, the Massachusetts senator asked Byrd to be his running mate.

Even though he and Kennedy were friends, Byrd refused. He confided to key staff that as Democratic leader he wouldn’t challenge a president of his own party.

Unlike McConnell, Democrat Byrd could walk across to the Republican side of the Senate and reach a compromise. He and then minority leader Howard Baker were amenable colleagues.

When the GOP took control of the Senate in 1980, Byrd wasn’t caught up in partisan fervor. He was philosophical that night.

“Guess I should walk down to Howard’s office and measure the windows for curtains,” he said with a smile, referring to Baker’s minority leader accommodations.

Baker and Byrd had an orderly transition of Senate power. The Tennessee senator was gracious and let Byrd keep his office, a spacious, coveted jewel of Capitol Building real estate.

I somehow don’t think McConnell would have been nearly as gracious or generous.

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Willard’s last meeting with Sen. Robert Byrd in the US Capitol. With wife Olga and daughter, Valya

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I am a novelist, painter, songwriter and essayist but my day job is elevating the profile of authors, entertainers and business executives.

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