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