Harry Flood Byrd Jr. (December 20, 1914 – July 30, 2013) was an American orchardist, newspaper publisher and politician. He served in the Senate of Virginia and then represented Virginia in the United States Senate, for an aggregate of thirty-six years in elected public office. He was the first independent in the history of the U.S. Senate to be elected by a majority of the popular vote.
Family, education, and newspaper career
Byrd was born December 20, 1914 in Winchester, Virginia, the eldest child of Harry F. Byrd Sr. and wife Anne Byrd (née Beverley). His siblings included a sister, Westwood ("Westie") and two brothers, Richard Evelyn (Dick) and Beverley. He was a member of one of the First Families of Virginia, including his uncle Richard E. Byrd, a pilot and polar explorer. On August 9, 1941 Byrd married Gretchen Thompson. They had two sons, Harry and Thomas, and a daughter Beverley.
In 1931, at the urging of his father, Byrd enrolled at Virginia Military Institute; two years later he transferred to the University of Virginia, where he became a member of the St. Anthony Hall fraternity. He left the University in 1935 to shore up his father's newspaper, The Winchester Star. He also gave up an opportunity to join a global business in Paris. The Star had been without a full-time editor since his father had left to represent Virginia in the United States Senate in 1933. Upon his joining the paper, his father warned him, "If you make too many mistakes, you're gone." Within a year his son became editor and publisher while his father retained financial control and advised him on editorials.
Byrd later assumed membership and then leadership roles on the paper's board of directors, dedicating 78 years to the enterprise in one capacity or another. Early in his career he also learned the business under the tutelage of John Crown at the Harrisonburg Daily News Record. Byrd was the publisher of that newspaper from 1936 to 1941 and again from 1946 to 1981, and was a member of its board until his death. He later became owner, until 1987, of the Page Shenandoah Newspaper Corporation, which published The Page News and Courier in Luray and The Shenandoah Valley Herald in Woodstock. He retired as Chairman of the Byrd newspapers in 2001, and his son Thomas succeeded him; indeed, the company has been owned by the family for more than 100 years.
Shortly after his marriage, he volunteered for the United States Navy during World War II and served initially in Navy Public Relations; he requested transfer to a combat position and was assigned to the Central Pacific as an Executive Officer with a bombing squadron of Consolidated PB2Y Coronados until 1946. While in the Navy he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
After the war, Byrd oversaw the construction of a new facility for the Star. He also became a director of the Associated Press and later served as its Vice-President.
He was a member of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Virginia state Senator
Byrd represented the third consecutive generation of his family to enter politics. His grandfather Richard Evelyn Byrd, Sr. served as the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, and Byrd had a most effective political mentor in his father, who served as a Virginia state senator, Governor of Virginia and United States senator. He began accompanying his father on trips during the elder's governorship, and once remarked that "I was in every county and city in the state by the time I was thirteen years old." In time Byrd became a key member in his father's statewide political network, known as the Byrd Organization.
The father's hallmark, and that of his organization, became Byrd's as well - an insistence upon fiscal restraint on the part of government, referred to as the policy of "pay-as-you-go". Byrd reflected this populist political legacy when he stated, "I am convinced we have too many laws, too much government regulation, much too much government spending. The very wealthy can take care of themselves, the very needy are taken care of by the government. It is Middle America, the broad cross section, the people who work and to whom the government must look for taxes - it is they who have become the forgotten men and women."
Byrd served in the Senate of Virginia from 1948 to November 1965. There he was Chairman of the General Laws Committee. As a major player in the Byrd Organization, in 1956 he provided strong integral support of legislation known as the Stanley plan, the Virginia legislature's arm of the Massive Resistance movement led by Byrd's father, and was arguably the nadir of the political careers of both. This movement opposed the desegregation of public schools required by the U. S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Three years after its enactment, the Stanley plan and Massive Resistance were invalidated by the courts; nevertheless, the racially based school closures and funding disruptions directed by the Stanley plan persisted in some localities until 1964.
The Byrd Organization then began its decline, and Byrd made no plan or significant effort to reverse it. Indeed, Byrd from the outset was intent on forging his own political path which later resulted in distinct and historic decisions. In the state senate, he shepherded to passage very notable legislation, called the Automatic Income Reduction Act, which guaranteed a tax rebate or credit to citizens whenever the general fund surplus exceeded certain levels. In just three years tens of millions of dollars were returned to Virginia taxpayers.
In November 1965, Byrd's father resigned from the U.S. Senate for health reasons, and at the father's suggestion, Virginia Governor Albertis S. Harrison Jr. appointed Byrd to succeed his father. He later won a special election in 1966 as a Democrat, to serve out the remainder of his father's term, beating his primary opponent, Democrat Army Boothe, by 8225 votes, under 1%.
In 1970 Byrd broke with the Democratic Party, when asked to sign an oath to support the party's yet-to-be-determined presidential nominee for the 1972 campaign. He rejected this demand, saying, "The Democratic National Committee is within its rights to require such an oath. I do not contest this action. I cannot, and will not, sign an oath to vote for an individual whose identity I do not know and whose principles and policies are thus unknown. To sign such a blank check would be, I feel, the height of irresponsibility and unworthy of a member of the United States Senate... I would rather be a free man than a captive senator." He then ran for re-election to the Senate as an independent. He was widely popular in the state and won the senate seat, with an electoral majority of 54% against candidates from both major parties; he thus became the first independent to win a statewide election in Virginia, and also the first independent to win a U.S. Senate seat by a majority vote. Byrd's move is said to have influenced Virginia political power for more than twenty years.
He continued to caucus with the Democrats, and extended his Democratic seniority. But like his father, Byrd had a very conservative voting record and was a strong supporter of federal fiscal discipline, as he had been at the state level. In fact he authored, and Congress passed, a floor amendment stating, "Beginning with fiscal year 1981, the total budget outlays of the Federal Government should not exceed its receipts." Consistent with this fiscal policy, Byrd was a minimalist as a producer of legislation - believing less was more.
Byrd easily won reelection in 1976 against Democrat Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. He thereby became the first senator to win election and re-election as an independent. The Republicans did not run a candidate that year and concentrated on carrying Virginia in the presidential election, which they did by the narrowest of margins, for Gerald R. Ford Jr.
Byrd's committee assignments in the senate included the Finance Committee and Armed Services Committee. Even as a senator, Byrd contributed regular editorial content to his newspapers, blending journalism and politics.
In a 1982 interview with the Washington Post, Byrd maintained that his earlier resistance to school desegregation, including the closure of schools, was justified and helped prevent racial violence.
Byrd did not run for reelection in 1982 and returned full-time to his home in Winchester; he and his father had held the "Byrd seat" in the senate for fifty consecutive years. He was succeeded by U.S. Representative Paul S. Trible, who served one term.
Even with his formal retirement from the Senate, Byrd retained his interest, and his independence, in politics; he endorsed Marshall Coleman, the Republican nominee for Governor of Virginia in 1989. He publicly supported Democratic Governor Mark Warner in 2004, although Warner sought to raise taxes and faced conservative opposition. He endorsed Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential election.
Byrd enjoyed retirement to his home "Courtfield" in Winchester, and time spent with his nine grandchildren and later his twelve great grandchildren. Byrd's wife of 48 years, Gretchen, died in 1989. He continued to serve as Chairman of the Board of the Star for almost twenty years. In 2003 he was named to the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in 2003. Byrd became a lecturer at Shenandoah University, and in 1984 the business program was renamed the Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business. In 2007 Byrd completed a literary work, Double Trouble: Vignettes From A Life of Politics and Newspapering. On October 20, 2009, with the death of retired U.S. Senator Clifford P. Hansen, a Wyoming Republican, Byrd became the oldest living former senator until his death at the age of 98.
Byrd appeared in the PBS special "Chasing Churchill: In Search of My Grandfather". A show by Winston Churchill's granddaughter, Celia Sandys, in which she travels the world retracing the steps of Churchill and meeting the people he used to know. Byrd recalled experiences he had when Churchill visited his family's home in Virginia and stayed with them for a week.
Byrd died of heart disease on July 30, 2013 in Winchester, Virginia at "Courtfield". At the time Byrd was the 8th oldest individual to have served in the Senate. A tribute published shortly thereafter observed, "The elder Byrd and his son shared a name, a tradition, many political views and an abiding love of Virginia. They also shared a character articulated by none so well as the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, Republican of Illinois: 'There are gentle men in whom gentility finally destroys whatever of iron there was in their souls. There are iron men in whom the iron corroded whatever gentility they possessed. There are men—not many to be sure—in whom the gentility and the iron were preserved in proper balance, each of these attributes to be summoned up as the occasion requires. Such a man was Harry Byrd.'”
- Byrd, Harry F. (2007). Double Trouble: Vignettes From A Life of Politics and Newspapering. R.R. Donnelly.