His voice rises

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the 87-year-old Democrat from West Virginia, has been called the conscience of the Senate. He’s also been called the Senate scold, its unofficial historian and the guardian of the Senate’s constitutionally mandated powers of the purse.

Now, author of a new book lambasting President Bush for the war in Iraq, Byrd wants to be known as the Paul Revere of his time. “Paul Revere woke up Concord,” Byrd said in an interview last week in his high-ceilinged office on the first floor of the Capitol. “I hope I can wake up some people in this country and that I would lend strength to those in the Congress today and in the future who may have to make a similar decision to go to war.”

Byrd is an unlikely hero of the antiwar movement. Raised in the hardscrabble poverty of coal mine country in West Virginia during the Depression, he could not afford to go to college. A gas station attendant and a welder, he joined the Ku Klux Klan during his first run for the state Legislature because he thought it would earn him votes. He quickly renounced his membership and spent 10 years getting his law degree at night while serving as a U.S. senator. He speaks in the oratory of a self-made man -- flowery phrases, references to Thucydides and Cicero, hardly the stuff of modern TV sound bites.

But he is also passionate about the war in Iraq and knowledgeable about the Senate psyche. So when he rose on Feb. 12, 2003, to speak against the Bush administration’s request for congressional authorization, his words ricocheted around the world. He chided his colleagues for standing “passively mute ... paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.” He attacked the idea of preemptive war, calling Iraq “the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time ... in contravention of international law.”


His speech struck a chord, or maybe it filled a need. Whatever the cause, Byrd’s clarion call against the war was reprinted in several languages, showcased on many news websites.

Suddenly, this lion in winter who confessed that he had been wrong to support the Vietnam War, this man of rage who accused the Bush administration of arrogant disregard for the public will, this senior senator who carried a worn copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket at all times, was a favorite of young war protesters. And now, as the presidential campaign heats up, he has written a book he hopes will topple a “power-grabbing administration, a bunch of super hawks who took George W. Bush prisoner.”

“Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency” is being published next Monday to coincide with the start of the Democratic National Convention. Norton Books has booked Byrd on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” NPR’s “Fresh Air” and CNN’s “Larry King Live.” There are planned speeches to promote the book in New York, where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will introduce him, and in Boston, where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) will do the honors.

Asked if he hopes to equal the 1.2-million-book sales posted so far by former President Clinton, Byrd demurs. “I don’t have any such thoughts as that but I’m doing my little part,” he said.

His “little part” is mostly to rail against the administration for taking the country “into a war that should never have been fought,” and for ramming through “gargantuan tax cuts that are back loaded and will come due between 2007 and 2011 when Mr. Bush will be back on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, off the political stage.”

He apologizes for “letting my voice rise.” Then he launches into another tirade. “My blood boils,” he said. “If this doesn’t make your hair stand on end, I don’t know what will.” Reading a passage from Bob Woodward’s recent book, Byrd quotes Bush as saying, “ ‘I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.’ ”

Byrd bristles. “Such hubris,” he said. “Unmitigated arrogance. He’s talking about the people here. That one little paragraph explains better than I could ever explain the contempt this man shows for the sovereignty of the people of this country.”

Byrd said he has “no apologies to make” for his efforts to stop what he calls “Bush’s War.” “I was right then, and I’m right now,” he said. “This country was hoodwinked, lied to, by an administration that for years had nursed the idea of taking on Saddam Hussein. The American people were hoodwinked. There’ll be no president at Dover to salute the flag-draped coffins. They don’t want people to see.”

He arrived on Capitol Hill when President Truman was still in office. He has seen his share of history and plenty of presidents. “I have never seen an administration so discourteous, so arrogant toward the legislative branch as this one is,” he said. “I’ve been here 51 years, so why shouldn’t I speak out?”

Age confers advantages. He is not afraid that the White House might attack him.

“West Virginia believes in God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Little Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd,” is his oft-repeated phrase, which he trotted out on his most recent election, in 2000, when he won every county in the state and all but seven of the state’s 1,970 precincts.

And well it might. As first chairman and now ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd has steered more than $1 billion in highway funds and federal agency funding to his state.

“I think I’m doing the country a favor by speaking out,” he said. “For too long the people have been silent. For too long the members of Congress have been silent. They’re timid, they’re afraid of being called unpatriotic. I am not afraid.”

He insists that his growling enmity toward the Bush administration is not entirely partisan. He said he got on “swimmingly” with President Nixon and other Republicans. In fact, he said, he was “the last man out of Vietnam, as it were. I supported Johnson, I supported Nixon. But we were misled, as the Senate was misled in this case.”

This raging bull of an aging Byrd has surfaced before. In 2002, he berated then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill for his wealth, prompting O’Neill to protest that he had been born in a house without electricity or running water, to which Byrd replied that his conditions as a child were equally impoverished. Critics assailed Byrd for sanctimony.

Asked about the exchange, Byrd said, “I don’t look back. There’s no reason to look back.” Accusing Bush of worsening the partisan divide in Washington, Byrd is asked whether he too is guilty of contributing to the polarization and noise that has come to characterize U.S. politics. “I am doing what I want to do,” he said. “I’ve made 69 speeches to date on Iraq. I did everything I could do. If I could do more I would do more.”