Harry Flood Byrd

Harry Byrd rose to prominence in Virginia politics in the early 1920s as state Democratic Party chairman and as an active campaigner against state bonds for road construction. Byrd moved quickly to the front of the Democratic Party and ran for governor in 1925 and won election. Byrd's governorship was progressive, aimed at creating efficiency and financial stability in the government. He was appointed to fill a U.S. Senate seat in 1933 and then served as Virginia's U.S. Senator until his retirement in 1965, winning statewide election in 1933, 1934, 1940, 1946, 1952, 1958, and 1964. From his position in the Senate Byrd controlled Democratic Party politics in Virginia. His "Organization," as it was called, exercised conservative, restrained, and honest government. The Organization resisted change and worked to preserve the status quo in segregated race relations. New York Times columnist James Reston called Virginia "the most conservative state in the Union" in 1960. If so, then its United States Senator, Harry F. Byrd, was its leading conservative. Byrd, according to Reston, kept out of the 1960 presidential contest not because Kennedy was Catholic nor because of Kennedy's stand on civil rights. Byrd, Reston argued, had supported Catholic Democratic Party candidate Al Smith in 1928 and in 1960 he saw little difference between Nixon and Kennedy on civil rights. Instead, the major issue for Byrd and other conservative Virginians was the national Democratic Party's support for "Big Labor" and "Big Government, Big Spending." While Governor J. Lindsay Almond and some other Virginia Democrats supported Kennedy, Byrd kept silent in October and refused to endorse Kennedy. Byrd actually received 15 electoral votes for President in the 1960 election, as unpledged electors from Mississippi, Alabama, and Oklahoma cast their votes for him rather than Kennedy. Byrd's career was long and his influence deep in Virginia politics. His "pay-as-you-go" fiscal principles remained an article of faith for elected officials well into the 1980s. His independent-minded defense of state's rights provided fertile ground for the national Republican Party in the eighties as well. His friendly, gentlemanly manner helped craft the persona of the successful Virginia politician for years to come. His strong commitment to national defense and to federal funding for massive defense facilities in Virginia cemented the state in the defense establishment. Byrd's massive resistance stand was a monumental disaster for Virginia and his political legacy, however, and Byrd's reputation rests uneasily on that legacy. (New York Times, October 5, 1960)