RICHMOND, Va.: Harry F. Byrd Jr., a 20th century champion of racial segregation and fiscal restraint who followed his father into the U.S. Senate but left his father’s Democratic Party, died Tuesday. He was 98.
Byrd, whose genteel demeanor masked thundering political clout, was the archetypal Southern senator during his 17 years in Washington. His 1983 retirement amounted to an epilogue for the “Byrd Machine” which once dominated Virginia politics from courthouses to the statehouse.
His death was first reported by the Winchester Star, where his son, Tom Byrd, is president and publisher. There was no word on the cause of death.
When failing health forced his father, Harry F. Byrd Sr., to vacate his Senate seat in 1965, the namesake son easily won a special election the next year to serve out his term. Then he left the still-dominant Democratic organization, marking only the second time an independent candidate had won a U.S. Senate seat. He won re-election in 1970 and 1976, winning more votes than his Democratic and Republican opponents combined.
“It’s a hard way to run, but if you can win that way it’s the best way to win,” Byrd later said. “You’re totally free of obligations to anybody. … You don’t have to follow a party line.”
From the 1920s through the 1960s, almost all Virginia public policy carried the Byrd imprimatur, from its debt-averse “pay-as-you-go” approach to government finance to defiance of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down racially segregated public schools. In 1956, Byrd denounced the ruling as an “unwarranted usurpation of power” by the high court.
He said he “personally hated” to see schools close, but defended Virginia’s “massive resistance” to federal desegregation orders, claiming it helped the state avert racial violence.
“It is one thing to sit here in 1982 and say what was done in 1954 was a mistake,” he said in a 1982 Washington Post interview. “It may or may not have been, because you have to look at it in the context of the times. When you have to make a very dramatic change, sometimes, most times, that needs to be done maybe over a period of time and not abruptly.”
Byrd, like his father, preached fiscal discipline.
In 1982, his final year in the Senate, Byrd said he was leaving public service with his convictions and integrity intact, but regretting that “Congress refuses to obey its own law which mandates a balanced budget.”