Obituary: Harry F. Byrd Jr. / Va. senator pushed Old South mindset

Dec. 20, 1914 - July 30, 2013

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Harry F. Byrd Jr., a scion of Virginia's most potent political dynasty who succeeded his father both as a U.S. senator and as a defender of old-time fiscal conservatism and the last vestiges of state-enforced racial segregation in Virginia, died Tuesday at his home in Winchester, Va. He was 98.

Wynnona Kirk, an assistant to Mr. Byrd, confirmed his death but did not cite a specific cause.

Courtly and dignified, Harry Byrd had the appearance and manners of a Southern gentleman and a pedigree to match. His family had lived in Virginia since the 17th century and had achieved remarkable successes in business and politics.

The Byrds came to dominate state affairs with a Democratic machine that largely controlled political appointments and held a seemingly unshakable hold on the Virginia electorate.

The organization's political philosophy was embodied in part by the anti-debt, "pay-as-you-go" fiscal policy that brought Harry Byrd Sr. to prominence in Virginia in the 1920s and remained a dominant force in state politics until the 1980s.

But the Byrds also embraced the tenacious injustice of state-enforced segregation. During Harry Jr.'s time as a state senator, the Byrd machine, under the banner of states' rights, orchestrated Virginia's "massive resistance" to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that outlawed segregated public education.

Harry Byrd Jr. spent 17 years in the Virginia Senate before Democratic Gov. Albertis S. Harrison Jr. appointed him to the U.S. Senate in 1965, when his father resigned for health reasons; the elder Byrd died the next year. Mr. Byrd won a special election in 1966 to fill the four years remaining in the term.

In 1970, Mr. Byrd joined the long train of conservative Southern Democrats who broke with the party in the second half of the 20th century. He abandoned his father's party but not his father's principles and successfully ran for re-election as an independent. In 1976, he was the only independent to win re-election to the Senate.

In the Senate, he voted with the Democratic caucus on organizational matters and with conservative Republicans on substantive matters of legislation. He took little part in committee deliberations, where much of the Senate's work is done, but he was punctilious about attending roll calls on the Senate floor: In 18 years, he was present for 96 percent of them.

Except in the realm of national defense, he distrusted public expenditure for almost any purpose. Believing that less government is better than more government, he rarely introduced legislation of any kind. One bill he did sponsor restored U.S. citizenship to Robert E. Lee, the Virginia-born Confederate general during the Civil War.

Mr. Byrd's commitment to economy in government extended to the operation of his Senate office. He returned thousands of dollars in expense money and refused some of his pay increases.

Unlike many Southern politicians of his generation, Mr. Byrd rarely went out of his way to improve relations with African-American constituents, who voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in any case. And after he left the party in 1970, he appeared to have little difficulty winning re-election as an independent. He declined to seek re-election in 1982 and retired from politics the next year.

Harry Flood Byrd Jr. was born in Winchester on Dec. 20, 1914. His mother was the former Anne Douglas Beverley.

Harry Jr.'s grandfather, Richard Evelyn Byrd, had served as speaker of the House of Delegates and established the Byrd brand in modern Virginia politics. And an uncle, Adm. Richard E. Byrd, was the famed explorer widely credited with being the first person to fly over the North Pole and then the South Pole.

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