By Mark Tooley @markdtooley
Driving to Winchester, Virginia from Washington, D.C. entails a trip on Harry F. Byrd Highway, named for the governor and longtime U.S. Senator whose political machine ruled Virginia for much of the 20th century. A famous 1964 photo shows President Lyndon Johnson bending to kiss the outstretched hand of Senator Byrd outside historic Christ Episcopal Church in Winchester, on the occasion of Mrs. Byrd’s funeral. (Harry Byrd was not related to West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, though they did serve together in the Senate.)
Robert Caro’s latest biographic volume on Johnson devotes considerable space to Senator Byrd, one of several powerful southern Senate committee chairs to whom Johnson was deferential throughout his career. A key moment was in the early 1950s when then Senator Johnson, almost alone among his colleagues, drove 70 miles in the rain to the funeral of Byrd’s daughter. Johnson realized the impact when Byrd momentously spotted his younger colleague while glancing over his daughter’s casket. Afterwards Byrd fondly treated Johnson almost as a son.
After assuming the presidency following JFK’s assassination, Johnson prioritized both a federal budget with tax cuts and civil rights. As parsimonious chair of Appropriations, Byrd insisted on a federal budget of less than $100 billion before even considering tax cuts. LBJ slashed the budget below even the previous year to please Byrd. He also judged that the budget must be passed first, otherwise southern senators would hold it hostage in exchange for tabling civil rights.
Byrd was an ardent defender of racial segregation. But consciously or not, he facilitated the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by helping LBJ seal his budget and tax cuts well before. Byrd even excitedly shared the news of his victory in committee to a White House operator, unable to restrain his delight, and having followed LBJ’s legislative advice. LBJ phoned back immediately to flatter the older man by telling him he had forced a president to cut the budget.
LBJ sort of came from poverty, though his father had been prosperous for a time, coming from prominent Texas frontier pioneers. Byrd came from Tidewater aristocracy, his ancestors building and inhabiting Westover Plantation on the James River. One ancestor wrote an infamous diary of his London sexual exploits, a diary also punctuated by pleas for divine mercy. The Byrds lost their fortune by siding with the British during the Revolution and started over in the Shenandoah Valley. Harry Byrd restored the fortune through Winchester’s newspaper, which the family still owns, and apple orchards, making Winchester then the world’s apple capital.
Byrd’s son, Harry Jr., succeeded his father in the Senate and still lives in Winchester, at age 97. Several years ago he was wonderfully interviewed on television by Winston Churchill’s granddaughter about Churchill’s visit to the Virginia governor’s mansion over 80 years ago. Then Governor Byrd and his son were delighted by their visitor, while Mrs. Byrd was appalled by his rudeness.
Richard Byrd, the famed Arctic explorer, was Harry Senior’s brother. He’s buried at Old Chapel outside Winchester, a 1790 Episcopal church where Declaration of Independence signer Edmund Randolph also lies. Lord Fairfax, the original proprietor of much of what is now northern Virginia and northeastern West Virginia, worshipped at that site. His tomb is now at Christ Episcopal in Winchester.
Harry Byrd resided in nearby Berryville at white columned Rosemont, which is now a bed and breakfast, with suites named for many of the celebrities who visited during Byrd’s years, like Albert Einstein, Charles Lindbergh, John Wayne, FDR, JFK, LBJ and Churchill. Besides hosting notables, Byrd, ever the politician, advertised on the highway now named for him that all guests were welcome. A young Barry Goldwater spotted the sign and stopped in the 1930s.
Some years ago I toured Rosemont, visualizing FDR’s car in the driveway or JFK’s helicopter on the lawn. I sometimes walk around Old Chapel, a stone church surrounded by Boxwoods and ancient graves, conveying a special sense of old Virginia, its nobility and tragedy. And often I visit Christ Episcopal, paying respects to Lord Fairfax’s tomb, examining the Civil War relics inside, and recalling LBJ’s famous interactions with Senator Byrd there, including a transformative glance over a casket and later a kiss on the hand, which had national ramifications, including civil rights.