The passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd from the American political scene also marks the departure of a great American character. This fiddle-playing high school graduate who earned a law degree at night (in 1963) and a college degree via correspondence courses (in 1994) regularly quoted the Bible, the classics, and large swaths of memorized poetry on the floor of the Senate was also a historian of the institution he loved most: The United States Senate.
Curiously, his reverence for the Senate and fierce defense of its constitutional role resulted in a most remarkable Government book on ancient Rome: The Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism. The roots of this book lay in Senator Byrd’s determined opposition to the idea of the line-item veto, which would grant the President the power to veto particular items in appropriations bills. Byrd viewed this proposal as usurping the Senate’s role and a threat to constitutional checks and balances. As a result, to quote Senate Historian Richard C. Baker’s Foreword, the Senator “initiated a series of fourteen addresses in opposition to the proposed line-item veto concept. During the following five and a-half months, he delivered each of the speeches – packed with names, dates, and complex narratives – entirely from memory and without recourse even to notes on consultation with staff aides.” (Italics in the original).
(Note: I knew Dick Baker when he was Senate Historian and asked him about the Senator’s role in writing both this book and his 4-volume The Senate: 1789-1989. He assured me that the Senator was indeed the author of these books, not just a speech reader.)
The Senate of the Roman Republic is replete with scholarly references to Polybius, Tacitus, and Montesquieu, as well as impassioned arguments against the line-item veto – surely a unique method of resisting encroachment on the rights of the Senate, and one we’ll not likely see again. Likewise, the departure of Robert Byrd, a man of the 20th century whose personality retained a bit of the flavor of the 19th, will leave Congress with a bit less color and zest.
To view a page listing all of Senator Byrd’s historical works, go here.