Q&A: Author Denise Giardina on comparing Robert C. Byrd and Joe Manchin

Colorized photo of Robert C. Byrd | WestVirginiaVille.com illustration. | June 8, 2022

EDITORS/NOTE: West Virginia native Denise Giardina is best known her acclaimed novels, including “Storming Heaven,” “Saints and Villains,” “Good King Harry,” and “Emily’s Ghost.” But she has also written the two-act play, “Robert and Ted,” tracing the relationship between senators Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The author (as Project Muse describes) “imagines their evolution from political foes to allies and firm friends,” showing their flaws as well as their “basic humanity and basic decency.” Below, WestVirginiaVille quizzes Giardina on the themes of this special issue: How does his tenure as a senator compare with that of his successor, Joe Manchin?

WESTVIGINIAVILLE: Robert C. Byrd was a complex figure with a striking career transformation. He went from early days deep in the West Virginia hills with Klan associations, to first filibustering the Civil Rights Act and supporting the Vietnam War, to repudiation of his own racism, to  stridently opposing Bush/Cheny’s Iraq War. What do you feel led him through these transformations?

DENISE GIARDINA: I think he had a quality that is too rare in human beings: the ability to continue to learn and grow over time as he aged. Maybe because he was self-taught, but he continued that process even as many of us reach ages where we just hunker down and stop growing.  He seems to have learned from his mistakes and had no trouble admitting he had been wrong about many things.

“I think he had a quality that is too rare in human beings, the ability to continue to learn and grow over time as he aged.”

~ Denise Giardinia on Robert C. Byrd

WVVILLE: Byrd directed billions of dollars to West Virginia and was criticized as “the Prince of Pork.” It always struck me he was just re-balancing a wrong: returning to the state the billions that extractive industries have sucked out of state. How do you view the federal money he directed West Virginia’s way?

DENISE GIARDINA: I agree totally with what you said. Byrd knew as well as anyone how little the coal industry left behind, even as it took the wealth out of the state. He also knew that the federal government had failed the state. For example, West Virginia was just about the only state with no major military installation. It was not his style to get up on a soapbox about it. I often wished he would have been more of a, say, Ken Hechler.  But he frankly wouldn’t have been re-elected all those terms he was. So, he went about it his own way.

Manchin and Byrd: Same office, different outcomes. | WestVirginiaVille.com illustration. | June 8, 2022

WVVILLE: Given Byrd’s years-long efforts to bring money and resources to West Virginia, what is your view of Joe Manchin’s successful efforts to drain billions from the Build Back Better Act, while stopping other ambitious Biden initiatives, which would have brought truckloads of investment and resources to the state. This includes even money in support of the Black Lung Miner’s fund and child tax credits that forestall child poverty, as he has balked at the cost of such proposals. What’s your take on him turning down money for the state — when that is what Byrd was all about trying to find?

DENISE GIARDINA: It’s totally despicable. You’re right to characterize him as ‘the Anti-Byrd.’  Or Seinfeld would call him the ‘Bizarro Byrd.’ The difference is there was nothing in it financially for Byrd. Whereas, Manchin is raking in money from his corporate/Wall Street backers and will continue to do so as a consultant/lobbyist when he’s out of office. He couldn’t care less about the people of the state, including coal miners.

WVVILLE: What other thoughts do you have on this conundrum of what Joe Manchin is doing with the same Senate office as occupied by Robert C. Byrd? My view is he seems to glory in finally being a player in Washington — in fact, its most key player. — and perhaps sees himself as being as significant a figure as Robert C. Byrd ever was. And maybe even a lot more, right now, and forget the consequences: ‘I’m a star!’

DENISE GIARDINA: It’s a story as old as Greek tragedy — hubris, hubris, center of attention, power, power, money, money. It won’t turn out well for anyone, him included.

NOTE: “Robert and Ted” debuted with an on-stage reading a the citywide FestivALL in West Virginia’s capital in June 2012, and had a staged reading at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2019 in Shepherdstown WV, before COVID shut down the theater. For more on her work, see this link.

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STORY INDEX: A shorthand guide to the stories in out Manchin-Byrd Special Edition, JUNE 8, 2022

EDITORS/NOTE: ‘The Curious, Confounding Case of Joseph Manchin III’:
Our modest effort at Joe-collation and sprawling, sometimes grouchy commentary is not just to belittle the man, alhough there are roundhouse punches and cranky cartoons, but to appeal in dire days to what’s left of the better angels of Joe Manchin’s nature. Unless they’ve been laid off due to inflation. His — into the Prime Minister of America.

INTRODUCTION: Is Joe Manchin the Anti-Byrd?:
However complicated his life, Robert C. Byrd left a legacy of accomplishment that benefited the state and nation. His career’s end game also set the example of what a senator looks like when they object to America running off the rails. So, a key question about Joseph Manchin III: Is he the Anti-Byrd? Or can he finally rise to the occasion and help rescue the Biden Administration in the midterms?

FIRST/PERSON: Traveling West Virginia’s backroads in the Byrdmobile:
J. MICHAEL WILLARD: “I once worked for a man who had been an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan — and I’m proud of it. Not because he was a Klan member more than three-quarters of a century ago, but because of what he became afterward …”

REFLECTIONS: Ted Boettner on “Status Quo Joe”:
“I don’t think Manchin thinks there is anything fundamentally wrong with business as usual and that the inequality we see today is just and acceptable. Byrd, at least partly, seemed to believe in a higher purpose beyond himself. I don’t see that with Manchin, who seems mostly motivated by financial interests and political gamesmanship.”

Q&A: Author Denise Giardina on comparing Byrd and Manchin
Byrd had “a quality that is too rare in human beings: the ability to continue to learn and grow over time.” With Manchin, “it’s a story as old as Greek tragedy — hubris, hubris, center of attention, power, power, money, money.”

FIRST/PERSON: Lessons learned from the Roman to the U.S. Senate
MARK FERRELL: “A big part of his identity in Washington was being a poor, orphaned son of the Appalachian coalfields, largely self-educated, who rose through the ranks to the world’s most august deliberative body and could match wits with any man in Washington of privileged background and Ivy League pedigree.”

MANCHIN/BYRD COMMENTARY: The word outside of West Virginia
“Byrd rails against the mendacity and militarism of the Bush administration, raising a bold if lonely voice in defense of our civil liberties and national character …”| When confronted by his coal industry ties, “Manchin argued the country needed ‘dependability’ in its sources of energy. In sinking the bill, he has frustrated efforts to definitively move beyond coal.”

CARTOONERY: Black By God acidly sketches Joe Manchin’s life & times
‘BLACK BY GOD: The West Virginian’ revives a potent tradition in the state — the zinger, draw-truth-to-power editorial cartoon and Joe Manchin has been a favorite zingee of this “storytelling organization centering Black voices from the Mountain State.”

MANCHIN/BYRD COMMENTARY: The word inside of West Virginia
“Assuming Manchin does not come home to his party on Build Back Better, voting rights, and Roe (a safe assumption at this point), he’ll have lost many more votes on his left side than he could ever hope to pick up on his right … If he doesn’t come back to his own party in really stunning fashion soon, you can expect Joe Manchin will be driving his Maserati to K street, instead of the Capitol, come 2025.”

HEY JOE’: Harmonically urging Joe to take climate action
In late 2021, a harmonic convergence of West Virginians came together on the statewide music video “Hey Joe,” urging Joe Manchin to take decisive action on the climate crisis.

DOGGEREL:’ The Ballad of Bobby & Joe’
‘Joe turns out to be, right now, / the guy who stops all bills, / to bring more billions back to West Virginia / and its rolling hills. / And maybe there’s a Byrd somewhere / who’s spinning in its grave, / as Joe keeps sucker-punching bills / the world needs to be saved …’

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