FIRST/PERSON: Traveling West Virginia’s backroads in the Byrdmobile

Robert C. Byrd served in the U.S. Congress from 1953 to 2010, among the longest records of service in congressional history. He made significant changes in his views and votes along the way. | illustration. | June 8, 2022

J. Michael Willard has had an international career, traversing journalism, politics, public relations, advertising, writing and art. This included traveling the world with West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, as adviser and press secretary. This article, originally written in response to former president Donald Trump’s comments on Byrd and Joe Biden, has been revised by the author for this special “Is Joe Manchin the Anti-Byrd?” June 8, 2022 edition of

By J. Michael Willard | | June8.2022

I once worked for a man who had been an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan — and I’m proud of it. No, not because he was a Klan member more than three-quarters of a century ago, but because of what he became afterward, and the contribution he made toward civil rights for our nation.

It is difficult for anyone to remove the stain of having for a period in the 1940s joined and recruited others for that racist organization. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was no exception, though he certainly tried.

This, even though this coal miner’s son had risen from poverty to become by 1977, the leader of the United States Senate. Even though a US News & World Report poll of influential Americans rated him the fourth most powerful man in the country at the time.

Byrd died at the age of 92 on June 28, 2010. He was the longest serving senator in the history of the Senate. Today, his seat is held by Joe Manchin, a former governor of West Virginia. The difference between them is night and day.

Where — once he obtained his leadership positions — Byrd worked within the system to coax his colleagues on legislative issues — Manchin seems bent on bucking his President and party at every turn. Manchin is parochial in his thinking. Byrd looked to serve the greater good.

When Byrd became Democratic Leader and Jimmy Carter became President, he told the Democratic caucus he was the President’s friend, but “not the President’s man.” However, he ran interference for Carter on such issues as the Panama Canal, Strategic Arms Limitation, and normalization of relations with China.

Manchin seems bent on bucking his President and his party at every turn. Manchin is parochial in his thinking. Byrd looked to serve the greater good.

Byrd was first chair in violin in high school and went on to become an accomplished old-time fiddler (his fiddle is in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame collection). In the 1970s, he played on the Grand Ole Opry. As well as performing on the campaign trail and at public dedications, hoe downs, and gatherings, he released this recording in 2009 of old-time classics.

On a prickly hot day 37 years ago in what we affectionately referred to as the “Byrdmobile” van, we traveled a narrow dirt road up a winding hollow until the pathway abruptly halted at a wood-frame house.

“My house was a little further up the road,” said Byrd of the path that disappeared into the undergrowth. “It burned down.” It was a campaign year, and the senator was again meandering through West Virginia on the way to an overwhelming victory.

On such trips, we would stop by rural post offices, and sometimes he would get his fiddle out and play a few songs for a gathering crowd. It was his unique way of campaigning.

“Everyone comes to the Post Office. They’ll hear that Robert Byrd stopped by and tell others,” he would say.

An elderly woman emerged from the house, puzzled at having visitors so far off the beaten path. Her bewhiskered grown son, with a shotgun in hand, stood over to the side, eyeing us warily. On the porch, Byrd told the woman that he had often passed her house as a child on his way to the paved road several miles distant while going to school.

“So you’re that little boy, Robert? I always wondered what happened to him,” she said, surprised. She truly did not know “the little boy” had become a powerful senator.

Byrd had come a long way from being a country store butcher from Raleigh County, to running for his first political office, a path that would eventually lead to advising presidents and traveling the world over.

“So you’re that little boy, Robert? I always wondered what happened to him.”

But, there was always that albatross around his neck, his long-ago association with the KKK, even though he had long repudiated what the group stood for and had allies in the Martin Luther King family and a sky-high favorable rating from the NAACP.

Byrd once remarked that klan membership would be in his obituary. It was something he could not escape. He was right. Former president Trump, in denouncing Joe Biden once, made an oblique reference to it during a campaign rally one day in Tulsa. Biden had spoken at a memorial service when Byrd died 10 years earlier. This led Trump to make the association between Byrd, Biden, and racist tendencies of both, which was as ridiculous a comparison as calling Trump a self-made man.

I know.

Byrd repacks his briefcase on June 10, 1964, after completing a 14-hour speech during a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, a move he later said he regretted.

I was at Byrd’s side for eight years, first as press secretary and later as director of his Democratic Leadership Office. I traveled with him over the highways and backroads of West Virginia as well as to Moscow, Beijing, Cairo, Tehran, Panama, London and points in between.

On each assignment, he met, warned, praised, and negotiated with leaders the world over. He most often was an emissary of the President of the United States, and on a special mission.

Interestingly, Byrd often knew more about the issues prior to a foreign trip than the State Department officials briefing him. He prepared as if he were taking a bar examination. He had earned a law degree from American University after having been elected to the senate.

Byrd wasn’t just in the room when decisions were made. He influenced the decisions, such as the time in Tehran, when he called a disappointed President Carter on a secure line and told him there was no way the Shah could survive the current upheaval in Iran.

“The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan. And I’ve said that many times. But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts. That was an albatross around my neck that I will always wear.”

~ Robert C. Byrd

The question always loomed. Why would I — someone active in civil rights from an early age whose son is bi-racial — work for a man who had once been a low-level organizer of the Klan?

It was then and now an easy answer. The transformation of Robert Byrd from who he was to who he became had occurred long before I joined him.

I’ll let him tell it in his words:

“The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan. And I’ve said that many times. But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts. That was an albatross around my neck that I will always wear.”

J. Michael Willard, walking from the Russell Senate office building to the U.S. Capitol with Sen. Robert C. Byrd in 1982.

In truth, Byrd’s involvement in the KKK was not just a youthful indiscretion or even based on a strictly racial motive. He was urged to join for political reasons in a state that had less than a four percent African American population.

In league with old-line southern senators, he also filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, four years later, he voted in favor of the 1968 Civil Rights Act and called his earlier vote against the act his worst ever.

When Byrd died, then-NAACP President, Benjamin Jealous said: “Sen. Byrd went from being in the KKK to being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the rights and liberties of our country.”

Iconic civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis said on Byrd’s passing: “Senator Byrd sought change and with that change, he became one of the staunchest supporters of civil rights I had ever seen …

“There is none like him. He made a significant change in his life, and that is what counts the most. That is what this country is about, the capacity for each one of us to grow and change. I will miss Senator Byrd; he was a true statesman.”

“Senator Byrd sought change and with that change, he became one of the staunchest supporters of civil rights I had ever seen …

~ Congressman John Lewis

I miss him, as well.

As for Sen. Manchin, I have known him since he was in the West Virginia Senate and later West Virginia Secretary of State. He was always a pleasant fellow.

He was never, and never will be, a Robert C. Byrd.

In addition to his work with Robert C. Byrd, J. Michael Willard was Communications Director and adviser for then-West Virginia Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV (and once filed papers to run for governor himself). After 22 years working in risky markets — Moscow, Kyiv, Istanbul — he and his wife, Olga, formed Willard Global Strategies to serve clients globally, with offices in Kyiv and Moscow. Since 2016, he has worked out of Orlando, while keeping a close and plain-spoken eye on Ukraine, where he raised two daughters who still live in Kyiv.

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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 …’


FIRST/PERSON: Choice words on Ukraine, Putin, Navalny & Zelensky: May 3, 2022: J. Michael Willard worked for Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller then went on to international career that landed him for years in Ukraine, where he raised a family. Excerpts from his thoughts on Putin’s brutal invasion of the country where two daughters still live.

Putting Faces to Ukraine’s Crisis: IN WESTVIRGINIAVILLE’S SUBSTACK NEWSLETTER: J. Michael Willard on Putin’s invasion and his daughter, Mia, writing from a bunker in Kyiv. | feb27.2022

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