Former U.S. Senator Harry Byrd Dies

Member Group : Salena Zito

Harry Byrd always laughed at people who despaired that Washington was more broken than ever.

"I guess they never heard of the ’60s — in both centuries," the former U.S. senator from Virginia once told the Tribune-Review.

The trailblazing Democrat-turned-independent died Tuesday at his home in Winchester at 98.

The son of a governor and U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., and nephew of famed polar explorer Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, his was one of the "First Families of Virginia" whose ancestors included William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond, and Pocahontas.

"He attributed his long life to two secrets: a Hershey bar and a Byrd apple a day," said John Warner, a former Republican U.S. senator who represented Virginia with Byrd and became his friend.

"He was a true patriot," Warner said.

Friends invariably described Byrd as a charming Southerner gentleman — but one with a wry humor and a sharp focus on public policy, history, current events and a love of newspapers.

He was a state senator in 1965 when appointed to fill his ailing father’s U.S. Senate seat, and he won his first full term the following year. In 1970 he quit the Democratic Party, saying party leaders issued an "unconscionable" ultimatum.

"I left the party after it demanded that I sign a pledge to support only its candidates," he told the Trib in 2012. "Well, I don’t take pledges."

Outraged Democrats called him as an extremist and strategists predicted he would lose his seat as an independent candidate. Both parties ran candidates against Byrd, who won with 54 percent of the vote.

"It was the first time, and the only time, in the history of the U.S. Senate that any independent had been elected with more votes than the Democrats or the Republicans combined, so I took a stand and along the way I established a Senate record," Byrd recalled.

"It was a contentious time. Then again, everyone thinks they are living in the most contentious times ever. Well, they really aren’t, are they?"

He recounted his decision and its consequences in a 1998 book, "Defying the Odds: An Independent Senator’s Historic Campaign."

Byrd served in the Senate under four presidents. He became close with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

He sponsored few bills in the Senate, believing "we have … too much legislation that we just don’t need." But he was the force behind a 1978 law requiring a balanced federal budget — a key principle of his lifelong fiscal conservatism.

Byrd caucused with Senate Democrats but noted that "no one ever took my vote for granted."

"He changed his party during a very transitional period," said Senate historian Don Ritchie. "It was not a peaceful time, or a quiet time, but no one disrespected his decision."

After leaving office, Byrd stayed active in his community, where his family owns the Winchester Star and the Harrisonburg (Va.) Daily News-Record. Until a few years ago, he walked to his office at the Winchester newspaper every day.

"The Byrd family has been in the newspaper business since 1860 and politics and newspapers are my passions," he said in the interview last year.

Byrd began working at the paper in 1935, doing odd jobs, and rose to publisher. His commitment to newspapers led him to become a vice president of The Associated Press.

His son, Thomas, became general manager of the newspapers in 1973 and succeeded his father as publisher in 1981.

Byrd was born Dec. 20, 1914, in Winchester. In 1941 he married Gretchen Thomson, who died in 1989. His sons, Harry III and Thomas, and a daughter, Beverley, survive.

Soon after his marriage, Byrd applied for a U.S. Naval Reserve commission — and received it the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He rose to the rank of lieutenant commander during World War II and was executive officer of a patrol-bomber squadron in the Pacific Theatre.

In his interview with the Trib, Byrd recalled with colorful accuracy a time when Winston Churchill stayed at his family’s home for 10 days when Byrd was a teenager.

"One evening there was this great state dinner with at least 30 dignitaries gathered for an elaborate feast, with ham as the main course," he said, recalling that Churchill wanted mustard and none could be found. "So everyone had to wait to eat while I had to run into town to buy the mustard at the store."

Byrd said he found joy serving his country and working at the newspaper.

"I could not have had a better life," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at [email protected].