Former segregationist Sen. Harry Byrd Jr. dies

RICHMOND, Va. — Former Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., the Democrat-turned-independent who began his career as a staunch segregationist and preached fiscal restraint in Washington long before it became fashionable, has died. He was 98.

Byrd’s son, Tom Byrd, is president and publisher of The Winchester Star, which first reported the death. Tom Byrd’s office confirmed that the former senator died Tuesday.

Byrd served 17 years in the U.S. Senate, replacing his powerful father, Harry Flood Byrd, a U.S. senator from 1933 until failing health forced him to retire in late 1965. Gov. Albertis Harrison appointed the younger Byrd, a longtime state senator who, like his father, supported segregation.

In 1966, Byrd won a special election for the remaining years of his father’s term. Switching from Democrat to independent, Byrd won re-election in 1970 and 1976.

Even as an independent, Byrd got more votes than the Democratic and Republican candidates combined. It was only the second time an independent won a U.S. Senate seat.

“It’s a hard way to run, but if you can win that way it’s the best way to win,” Byrd later said. “You’re totally free of obligations to anybody. … You don’t have to follow a party line.”

He made a career of preaching the value of fiscal restraint. He claimed Congress could balance the budget if it could just hold annual spending increases to the 3 percent to 5 percent range and even criticized President Reagan military buildup as “giving the Pentagon the impression it has a blank check.”

When he retired in 1982, Byrd said he was leaving public service with his convictions and integrity intact, but with regret that “Congress refuses to obey its own law which mandates a balanced budget.”

Both Byrds supported Virginia’s stand against desegregation, including the decision to push “massive resistance” — even school closings — to fight the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. In 1956, he had called the ruling an “unwarranted usurpation of power” by the court.

He told The Washington Post in 1982 that he had “personally hated” to see schools close, but even those many years later he didn’t disavow massive resistance and suggested it helped the state avoid racial violence.

“It is one thing to sit here in 1982 and say what was done in 1954 was a mistake,” he said. “It may or may not have been, because you have to look at it in the context of the times. When you have to make a very dramatic change, sometimes, most times, that needs to be done maybe over a period of time and not abruptly.”

Byrd often indicated that switching from the Democratic Party to become the Senate’s only independent was a philosophical move. He insisted he had not suffered for it, retaining his ranking positions on various key committees and subcommittees.

Larry Sabato, a government professor at the University of Virginia, has said Byrd’s move had both national and state implications.

“It was a harbinger of the decline of partisan identification that took place in the 1970s and 1980s all across the country,” Sabato said. “In Virginia, it helped bring conservatives from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. Byrd first helped them stop voting Democrat. It was a half-step.”

Byrd said he left the party after state Democrats required all candidates to sign a loyalty oath supporting all Democratic candidates, including the nominee for president two years later, George McGovern. Byrd said their political philosophies were too far apart to support McGovern.

Byrd said he already was becoming disillusioned with the liberal direction the party was taking. Republicans tried to woo him, but his mind was made up.

“I always felt in my political life, a person needs to be consistent and do what he says he’s going to do and not shift around too much,” Byrd said.

In the book “The Byrds of Virginia,” Alden Hatch wrote that the younger Byrd — who strongly resembled his father — was stymied rather than helped by his father’s fame.

The book quoted the Danville Register as saying upon Byrd’s appointment: “All familiar with Virginia public affairs … have been aware that Harry F. Byrd Jr. worked under rather heavy wraps. He was restrained from seeking statewide office, for which he has been mentioned often over the past dozen years, by his own sensibilities.”

Byrd was born in Winchester on Dec. 20, 1914. His first memory of politics was at age 10 during his father’s campaign for governor.

“He would use me as a sounding board, thinking out loud,” Byrd said. “I didn’t always know what he was talking about, but it got me interested in politics.”

Byrd graduated from Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia and served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II.

At a testimonial dinner for Byrd after the senator announced his retirement, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush declared: “Harry Byrd has hammered out a compact and solid and shining piece of work a first-rate career of service to his state and nation.”

Bush said Byrd had clout on the Senate floor.

“When he has seen a wayward spending proposal or a needless extension of federal power take flight, he has brought it down as if he were at a pheasant shoot,” Bush said at the 1982 dinner.

The Virginia Byrds were not related to the former longtime Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died in 2010.

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