Sen. Robert Byrd came to public service during an age when politicking was different. Running for office at that time was a much more personal, door-to door, one-on-one venture. He had a natural talent for it.
[IMGCAP(1)]In those times, long before cable and satellite TV, before the Internet age and iPhones, a political gathering was a local social event. Crowds would gather around the back of a pickup truck to listen to a good stump speech.
Families from miles away would be drawn out of the hollers to the county courthouse for an evening of speechifying, made all the more entertaining if there was a good string band. They would bring a little picnic supper, maybe just a few sandwiches and slices of pie in a couple of pokes, and set aside the evening to socialize with all their neighbors and friends.
Byrd didn’t have much, but he had a bit of a talent for fiddling and a keen sense of political tactics. He would show up at these gatherings — sometimes uninvited and certainly always unwanted by an opponent — toting that fiddle of his. At the opportune time, he would pull that fiddle out, set it under his chin and start playing a few tunes. Soon, a little ring of folks would form around him, tapping their feet and clapping along.
He always liked his crowds close. He felt there was a special kind of energy that flowed through an audience when they were tight together, rubbing elbows. After he had them hooked by the music, he would reel them in, giving a little talk that, even then, demonstrated his legendary oratory skills. He had charm and a sense of humor that endeared him quickly to those he had never met before. He had a little tin cup to raise what meager campaign funds that he could.
My father shared stories about those earliest years. He served as Byrd’s campaign treasurer. In later years, I witnessed these events myself.
It was from Byrd that I caught the political bug, and it was thanks to him that I came to Washington, D.C., to work and get my feet wet in the operations of government, meeting Members of Congress and further whetting my appetite to serve.
He became my mentor, my teacher. And I became one of the legions of young people who would be indoctrinated in the “Byrd way” of public service.
He valued and monitored every letter, every call from his constituents, and he insisted that each of those communications be treated with care and respect. Even as a benign essential tremor made writing a time-consuming chore, he added as many personal notes to his letters as he could.
He was sharp and brilliant, and he demanded sharpness, in turn, from his staff. It has been said that working for him was a bit like constantly being in college finals. True. But much to his credit, he always listened, always considered the multiple sides of any issue and could find that stroke of brilliance even in the timid, uncertain words of the youngest and most inexperienced staff member.
He set the example of true, dedicated public servant for his staff and colleagues. He kept West Virginia at the forefront of his mind, even at the height of his leadership of the Senate. He loved to travel back home to West Virginia and would revel in shouts of “Brother Byrd,” and later “Big Daddy.” Extra time almost always had to be factored into his visits because he was mobbed by folks just wanting to shake his hand and by ladies who grabbed at his belt loops to give him a hug.
He didn’t need to speak to sway the crowd.
I remember a particular political gathering of about 1,500 people. There we were in an old tobacco warehouse. It was muggy. Byrd was recognized. He stepped up to the lectern, surveyed the crowd, coolly slipped a hand under his jacket, pulled out perhaps the biggest cigar I have ever seen, lit it and puffed away. Widening circles of smoke rose above him. And the room went wild. For two solid minutes, he stood there in the midst of a standing ovation, and he hadn’t even uttered a word.
One of the last times I was with him in West Virginia, he had come home to Raleigh County. There was a dinner at which he appeared as the surprise guest. It was an event arranged in my honor. He had a cold. And throughout the evening, my wife and I tried to make him, with his sniffly nose, a bit more comfortable. He got up to speak. Even then, he held the place in rapt attention.
As he spoke about our years of working for the people of West Virginia, I was touched that my mentor, my Senator, would make this trip to be with me on such an occasion. Of course, I was his Congressman, representing his home district — something we both found ironic and amusing.
At one point during his remarks that evening, he sniffed a bit, and I slipped him a tissue. His flair for oratory, his charm and sense of humor still firmly intact, he winked at the audience and simply said, “As you can see, we still work very well together.” And so we did.
Robert C. Byrd will always be part of me. His example and his expectations will always guide me. With any luck, they will also continue to influence this government, the House of Representatives and the Senate that he so loved.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D) represents West Virginia’s 3rd district.