The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd's Encounters with Eleven U.S. Presidents
By David A. Corbin
Potomac Books, 379 pages. Hardcover, $34.95.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- During 52 years in the U.S. Senate, Robert C. Byrd was involved in some of the most momentous issues of our time, from Civil Rights and the Vietnam War to Watergate, from the line-item veto to the invasion of Iraq. But his role and contributions are regularly overlooked, argues his former speechwriter and historian David A. Corbin.
Corbin's new book "The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd's Encounters with Eleven U.S. Presidents" provides a fascinating look at Byrd's changing philosophy and political leadership over his Senate career, the longest in U.S. history.
"Despite his records and his involvement in so much history," Corbin writes, "no person of his stature has received so little historical attention. For so long, national newspapers, political pundits and others outside the Senate ridiculed, criticized, scoffed and stereotyped the West Virginia senator."
As an example, Corbin cites the critical role Byrd played during Senate hearings exposing the Watergate scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon -- a role often forgotten.
Later in his life, Byrd repeatedly said the Congressional vote he regretted most was one cast in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, enabling Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate the Vietnam War.
By 1968, he began questioning the wisdom of the Vietnam War, directly criticizing Johnson, Corbin points out. While he originally had a cordial relationship with Nixon, that broke down over issues like that war.
By 1973, Byrd was criticizing the Nixon White House for "abusing the rights of antiwar protesters" and bombing Cambodia.
In 1971, Byrd supported the release and publication of the controversial "Pentagon Papers" -- previously secret government documents about its involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967.
Byrd's opposition to aggressive foreign policies and military ventures grew over the years.
During Jimmy Carter's administration, Byrd was a major supporter of the controversial Panama Canal Treaty that returned land to local residents. In the early 1980s, Byrd strongly opposed Ronald Reagan's belligerent ventures in Central America.
Byrd was particularly critical of Reagan's Iran-contra scandal, Corbin points out. Reagan arranged the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran, trying to free American hostages in Beirut, then secretly used money from that sale to fund right-wing opposition to the Nicaraguan government.
Byrd fought Reagan's efforts to dismantle Social Security, close job training programs, cut school lunches and reduce veterans' hospital benefits.
Byrd "inspired the Senate to stand up to Reagan," Corbin writes.
"After Vietnam, Byrd had turned against military action as a first resort and had become cautious about giving the president authority for such."
In 2001, Byrd supported George W. Bush's "war on terror" initially, but soon changed when it became obvious Bush was citing false intelligence information and concealing the real costs of war.
Byrd became a critic, perhaps the nation's most eloquent critic, of the Iraq war and, later, of continuing the Afghanistan war.
The Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the right and power to declare war, Byrd stressed repeatedly in speeches on the Senate floor.
But Corbin engages in a bit of historical revisionism in repeatedly arguing Byrd's opposition to legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 was based primarily on a belief that the Constitution limits the federal government from dictating to states how to govern and how to hold elections.