This week, we recognized President Lyndon Johnson’s birthday by looking at his relationship with Senator Byrd.

Shortly after Byrd first entered the Senate in 1958, he became a close friend and protégé of Johnson. Their relationship carried over into Johnson’s vice-presidency. Byrd remained a loyal supporter to Johnson, providing him with an insider connection to the Senate. The two were so close, in fact, Johnson once said of Byrd, “he is like a son to me,” in a Veteran’s Day speech given in West Virginia.

When Johnson ascended to the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Byrd felt that he had a strong ally in the White House. Byrd biographer David Corbin provides various anecdotes about Senator Byrd’s visits to see Johnson, including one where Johnson spontaneously invited Byrd to the White House to watch football.

Senator Byrd was one of Johnson’s chief supporters during the first years of the war in Vietnam. Byrd would continue to back all of President Johnson’s decisions in Vietnam until the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, commonly referred to as the “Viet Cong,” launched the Tet Offensive. When it became clear that America was not faring as well in Vietnam as Johnson’s administration wanted the public to believe, Byrd began to question the war’s success and necessity.

 Before Byrd began criticizing Johnson’s policies in Vietnam, the two clashed over another major issue: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Johnson made it his goal to push for civil rights legislation during his time in office, and while Senator Byrd had voted for some civil rights bills in the past, including the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he questioned the constitutionality of the 1964 act and eventually filibustered the bill. Johnson attempted to change Byrd’s mind, but the senator refused to compromise.

In a telephone call between Byrd and Johnson in 1964, the President briefly brought up the civil rights bill before being shut down by Byrd and moving on to other topics.

Byrd told Johnson, “The only thing I won’t go along with, Mr. President, you and I have already discussed…that’s the civil rights bill.”

 A transcript of the conversation highlights both Byrd’s stubbornness and the fondness the two men shared for each other, with Johnson ending the conversation, “God bless you and I love you and come see me.”

Despite their differences of opinion regarding the Civil Right Act and the Vietnam War, Byrd’s generally supported Johnson’s Great Society, especially the “War on Poverty” programs, which enabled Byrd to secure desperately needed financial aid for West Virginia’s citizens.

Byrd’s relationship with Johnson was among the best of those the Senator had with the eleven presidents he worked with.  According to Corbin, Johnson left the White House in 1968 with these final words to Byrd, “I couldn’t leave Washington without a final warm farewell to a man who had been such a constant colleague and friend over the years.”

By Malorie Matos

David Corbin, The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Eleven U.S Presidents. 83.

Transcript, 3.

Transcript, 6.

David Corbin, The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Eleven U.S Presidents. 113.

Former President Bill Clinton turned 68 on August 19th.

The Clinton administration was certainly a rocky one for Senator Byrd. Rumors about Clinton’s infidelity and lack of organization made Byrd uneasy even before the 42nd President took office. Byrd always placed a great deal of importance on morality, and his attention to detail was one of his defining characteristics, so it is clear to see why he may have found Bill Clinton’s conduct off-putting.  

Byrd biographer David Corbin wrote, “To a perfectionist like Byrd, the administration’s sloppiness, as well as its political ineptness, were inexcusable,” after discussing the Clinton administration’s disordered lack of professionalism.

Throughout the President’s two terms, Byrd often found himself opposing Clinton, despite being a fellow Democrat. One of the first issues that soured their relationship was the line-item veto. During his campaign, Clinton made his support for the line-item veto well-known. Senator Byrd believed that giving the President the ability to veto individual line items in a bill would disrupt the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. He was very outspoken on this issue and addressed the Senate many times before, often using the decline of the Roman Senate as an example of how the line-item veto disrupts government function. Byrd was unable to garner enough congressional support to defeat the line-item veto in 1996. Fortunately for Byrd and unfortunately for Clinton, the Supreme Court ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional in 1998.

Clinton and Byrd also clashed over Clinton’s first-term attempt at healthcare reform and his decision to send ground troops to Bosnia without consent from Congress. Byrd was concerned that the President was abusing his position as commander in chief by circumnavigating congressional war-making powers.

In a letter to Clinton dated June 2, 1995, Byrd wrote, “The extent, duration, dangers, and cost of such an operation all point to the wisdom and prudence of getting Congress and the American people behind this type of involvement.”

Senator Byrd played a significant role during Clinton’s memorable impeachment scandal. Although Byrd did not approve of Clinton’s sexual misconduct or the fact the President lied about his actions while under oath, he was still hesitant to go through the impeachment process. Byrd felt that much of the support for impeachment was fueled by destructive partisanship and that the trials might be harmful to the stability of the nation.

Byrd did agree to go through with the impeachment trials on the basis that it was the Senate’s constitutional duty to do so. Throughout the trial, Byrd made his distaste for Clinton clear. According to Corbin, “On the senate floor, Byrd had denounced [Clinton] for violating standards of behavior. “ Despite these statements, Byrd eventually issued the motion to dismiss the charges against Clinton and allow him to complete his term as President.

Bill Clinton may not have had the most positive relationship with Byrd, but the two still managed to interact with a certain level of cordiality, just as Byrd often did with previous Presidents.

In his autobiography, Byrd mentions how much a 1994 letter from President Clinton meant to him. In the letter, Clinton congratulated Byrd on 36 years in the Senate and called him “one of the legendary guardians of that great institution.”

Here at the archive, we have another small note of congratulations from Clinton to Byrd.  Though it doesn’t say, it is very likely that the letter is referring to Byrd’s defeat of the balanced budget amendment in early 1995. The handwritten note reads,

“Dear Sen. Byrd—Congratulations on your great victory for the Constitution—This is my best supply—No one deserves it more—Sincerely Bill Clinton” with a side note indicating that the “best supply” was a box of cigars.

Clinton was one of the eulogizers at Robert Byrd’s funeral in Charleston, WV.

By Malorie Matos

David Corbin, The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Eleven U.S Presidents. 244.

Letter from Robert Byrd to Bill Clinton, June 2, 1995. Robert C. Byrd Congressional Papers, Byrd CLS

Corbin, 256.

Letter from Bill Clinton to Robert Byrd, March 2, 1995. Robert C. Byrd Congressional Papers, Byrd CLS

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The second issue of “The Byrd Call” from the Byrd Center is available!

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The Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies has just published the second issue of their interactive newsletter, “The Byrd Call.” Read all about the Byrd Center’s programming efforts and projects related to digitizing Senator Byrd’s extensive photo albums, curating virtual exhibits, and conducting oral histories.

Visit the Byrd Center’s website to access previous issues of The Byrd Call.

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usnatarchivesexhibits:

Tennessee’s Ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Item From: General Records of the United States Government. (03/04/1789-).
In 1920 the 19th Amendment gained enough approval from the States to officially become the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Tennessee ratified the amendment on the 24th of August, better late than never! The ratification is signed by A.H. Roberts, governor of Tennessee.
Source: http://go.usa.gov/DNYj

usnatarchivesexhibits:

Tennessee’s Ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Item From: General Records of the United States Government. (03/04/1789-).

In 1920 the 19th Amendment gained enough approval from the States to officially become the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Tennessee ratified the amendment on the 24th of August, better late than never! The ratification is signed by A.H. Roberts, governor of Tennessee.

Source: http://go.usa.gov/DNYj