Tag Archive: Robert Byrd


Mrs. Colleen Coffield made notes on Senator Byrd’s 1976 speech to her fourth grade students in New Martinsville, WV. Bob Coffield, an attorney specializing in health care, recalls being one of those starry-eyed students. He found the note among his mother’s papers.

I just Googled Peter Sagal to learn more about the host of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, a public radio show I sometimes listen to on Sunday mornings as I make my way to church.  Yesterday, I believe it was Mr. Sagal who was exercising his right of free speech to ridicule our newly canonized patron saint, Senator Robert Byrd, who is not yet buried. It was fitting that Mr. Sagal was doing so on Mr. Byrd’s favorite holiday, July 4th.

I’m primed to laugh when I tune into Wait, Wait, but yesterday morning my good humor was spoiled as I listened to Mr. Sagal launch a snide attack on the legacy of Senator Byrd.  His question, concerning sculptor Bill Hopen’s statue of Senator Byrd in the West Virginia’s State Capitol Rotunda, posed three answers.  The answer was number two, that the hands of Hopen’s statue point toward the pockets of the American people, implying that Byrd picked our pockets.  He introduced Byrd as the West Virginia politician who was fond of naming his pork projects  after himself. 

At first, I thought it was the show’s co-host Carl

Question: Has Peter Sagal subjected himself to noxious fumes that have impaired his judgment, or is he at worship?

Kasell speaking, and was surprised that a veteran newsman would make a mistake like that.  Newsfolk who work in Washington can find much to satirize, but it’s only funny when it’s true.  The truth is, Byrd didn’t name anything after himself. The people who were grateful for the money Byrd was able to appropriate named highways, buildings, schools, and programs in his honor. The record shows Byrd never pocketed a dime.  Sagal, deliberately or not, made a small but significant error that serves to heighten our cynicism about our government and the people who “serve” us.

(I could make a joke here about how we should perhaps excuse Mr. Sagal for expecting corruption from political representatives as he is from New Jersey, but I have a soft spot in my heart for that state that suffers as much or more derision than West Virginia.  I once saw a photograph of a lovely place there that looks very much like the valley U. S. Route 219 travels between Elkins and Huttonsville. The photo caption said something to the effect of “Gee whiz, guess where this is?”)

Sagal wound up his fun with Byrd with the question that pointed to the fact that Byrd managed to locate a Coast Guard station in landlocked West Virginia that oversees the port of New Orleans, reminding me of those jolly propagandists on Fox News who use half-truths to disparage their targets and undermine confidence in leaders they oppose. Later yesterday evening, an in-depth report and commentary on Byrd, also on public radio, mentioned that the senator was ahead of his time in the wisdom of decentralizing the locations of our federal government. Mr. Sagal didn’t mention that the location of the Coast Guard office is less than two hours from downtown DC, an average commute for many Washingtonians.  He also didn’t mention that West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle is becoming heavily populated with happy refugees from metro D. C.  Har de har har.

My husband reminded me that Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me is a comedy show, that no one is spared.  Okay. But today I am less inclined to chortle along with Mr. Sagal on Sunday mornings. I don’t trust him to base his humor on truth, even the truth of his perspective.  He cheapened himself and his show in my eyes, and perhaps the eyes of others who know much more about Senator Byrd and his vision for the nation.  What else might Mr. Sagal get wrong for the sake of a joke?  The accomplished Mr. Sagal, according to the Google oracle, is an author, playwright, screenwriter and essayist as well as the host of the public radio show.  I note that he attended Harvard.  All kidding aside, I doubt Sagal would be worthy to shine Mr. Byrd’s shoes.

Byrd at age 12. The photo, courtesy of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, is included in the liner notes of the CD reissue of Byrd's 1978 album, "Mountain Fiddler," produced by County Records and available through http://www.countysales.com.

Yesterday United States President Obama, Vice President Biden, former President Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traveled to West Virginia to pay their respects to Robert C. Byrd, the nation’s longest serving senator, who died Monday, June 28, at the age of 92. 

They sat in the hot sun on a cloudless day among a host of dignitaries, Byrd’s family and associates, and ordinary folks from all around the State of West Virginia—who this time, had the better seats in the shade of old trees on the state capitol grounds in Charleston. One man, a burley, crew-cut guy who looked like he would feel at home at the helm of a backhoe, openly wept at the end of the ceremony as Byrd’s casket was carried up the steps to the Rotunda by the West Virginia National Guard Honor Cordon. The senator was leaving West Virginia for the last time. 

Countless words have been written about Byrd, who more often than not, confounded the proud and self-important.  Business Week writer Albert R. Hunt said it was easy to underestimate Byrd, describing him as “socially awkward, pompous, the king of pork, a fiddler with no social life outside the Senate.” 

Hunt goes on to say, “In a business that places a premium on collegiality and conviviality, Byrd had no talent for either,” but concedes that “what he lacked in sophistication and polish, he made up in shrewdness and persistence.” 

Mr. Hunt, like most writers who examined Senator Byrd over his long career in Washington, noting what they perceived as eccentricities they would magnify and deride, apparently has no ear for old-time music.  He never accompanied Byrd to the small towns of West Virginia where the senator was perfectly at ease among his people–who are always described as poor on the value scale conventional Americans use to judge everyone.  He obviously never saw Byrd in the company of fellow musicians, especially that rare breed who knows the old tunes that have been passed down through generations.  When Byrd was with them, his spirit soared. He whooped and laughed and shouted, urging the fiddlers and clawhammer banjoists to “Play it!”  “When he was with us, he was one of us,” says Doyle Lawson, the acclaimed traditional musician who played guitar on Byrd’s 1978 LP, “Mountain Fiddler.”  

Humility is a difficult virtue that gets a lot of lip service but is not roundly practiced because it requires perspective, understanding, and the courage to be a servant. It must be so rare in the corridors of Washington D.C. that it’s hardly recognizable. Superficial polish and sophistication, real and feigned, are as abundant as hot air, bluster and treachery. 

Robert Byrd, known as Bob or Bobby in the coalfields of Raleigh County, West Virginia, where he grew up, went to Washington poor and, by Congressional standards, stayed that way. He lived on his salary, took a baloney sandwich made by his wife for lunch, and did the job West Virginians sent him to Washington to do, far exceeding our expectations and everyone else’s.  He remained “poor in spirit,” a condition as inscrutable to most people as his character, yet when once asked how many presidents he had served under, he answered, “None.”  The answer wasn’t inspired by pride; it came from his understanding of Constitutional separation of powers.

If only he had lived another eight years, or 12 or 20, in good health and sound mind, he might have ushered his state into a respectable position in the global economy. In a recent statement, to the consternation of the coal industry and lesser politicians, he urged “… For the sake of West Virginia’s best interests, and the vital longer-term interests of our nation and our world, the Senate must now move promptly to take responsible, decisive, and effective action on a moderate but major new energy policy.”  

Starting out with no status and no privileges, he chose to dedicate his native gifts to the advancement of his state. He made some big mistakes but was also big enough to admit them, correct them and move forward.  He chose to become educated, and continued to learn and change well beyond the age when most people have set their brains on automatic pilot. 

Byrd set the bar high in whatever he did. Who can follow his act in Congress?  Who will go to Washington with a deep appreciation of the lessons of history, and be able to resist the seductions of power and opportunities for personal gain? Who won’t be dazzled by sophistication and polish, but will work shrewdly and persistently to shape a future for West Virginia that looks radically different from its past?  

Now that we’ve seen the results of integrity, persistence and courage, let’s hope we won’t settle for anything less.