FIRST/PERSON: Lessons learned from the Roman to the U.S. Senate

“I believe Byrd knew enough history and had a long enough life of his own to see that either you change along with the world or the world will leave you behind.” ~ Mark Ferrell | WestVirginiaVille.com photo-illustration | June 8, 2022

Boone County native Mark Ferrell worked for many years in the office of Robert C. Byrd and also served as press secretary for Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Robert Byrd. Here are some of his impressions of his time working with Sen. Bird from a WestVirginiaVille email Q-and-A:


By MARK FERRELL | As state press secretary, I wrote press releases and sometimes speeches for him, among other things. He would talk about the issues and I’d make notes, then draft things for his revision and approval.

When he was in state, longtime state director Anne Barth, his advisor and confidante, accompanied him everywhere, and sometimes it was the three of us. He’d call me sometimes at work or home just to talk about politics in West Virginia, to see what was going on, to ask if he should call anyone, etc.

I ran his last campaign, with Dan Tompkins, in 2006. We rented a travel RV, and had a captains chair installed in the passenger side that could swivel and face the passengers in the back. These were a continuing mix of staffers from DC and his state office who would spend a few days on the road with us.

He was a voracious reader all his life and had a wide knowledge of history, particularly Roman senate history. He knew in great and intimate detail how different politicians of antiquity failed or succeeded.

Robert C. Byrd and Joe Manchin on election night 2006 at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Charleston WV. NOTE: The photographer was hired for one night to shoot election night photos and Mark Ferrell couldn’t recall his name. Email us on our CONTACT page if this is your photo and we’ll credit it.

Byrd conducted tutorials of sorts, quizzing staffers on their areas of expertise and advising them or taking advice, giving informal ‘lectures’ on Greek and Roman political history, a little bluegrass music, often some impressive lengths of poetry from memory.. It was an amazing experience and we all had so much fun on the road with him.

He was a voracious reader all his life and had a wide knowledge of history, particularly Roman senate history. He knew in great and intimate detail how different politicians of antiquity failed or succeeded. He didn’t play golf, go to cocktail parties or chase women, which made him something of an outsider on the Capitol Hill social scene. He read history and law at home in the evenings while other senators partied. He got his law degree while a member of Congress (the only person to do so). He said he never had any intention of practicing law — he just wanted to know what lawyers knew.

Absent practically any vices, other than cigars, I think it was easier for him to avoid most of the mistakes that brought down great leaders of Roman senate and military. Namely, hubris. The inability to change as the world changed. He cited men who had risen in power and lost power because they were so convinced in their own genius and infallibility they became resistant to change. I believe Byrd knew enough history and had a long enough life of his own to see that either you change along with the world or the world will leave you behind.

ON RACE AND OBAMA

On the issue of race, I think Byrd doesnt get enough credit for having the courage and moral responsibility to bring Barack Obama to West Virginia in 2008 and give him a keynote address platform at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner. And then to endorse him for president in the primary — even though he had a good relationship with Hillary Clinton and praised her often for choosing to be a ‘workhorse’ instead of a ‘show horse’ and digging into her work as a freshman senator.

The Manchins, like most Democrats in West Virginia, were with the Clintons. And Hillary then beat Obama in the state’s primary 67% to 25%. Byrd knew it was the right thing for him to do, personally. But it was also a message to West Virginia, a state that still struggled with issues of race. It was a deal breaker for some longtime Democrats. Obama won the election but lost West Virginia by 13 points.

ON BEING DUBBED ‘THE PRINCE OF PORK’

Robert C. Byrd was an accomplished fiddler and would play at campaign stops, hoedowns, and public events.

He used to say: “It’s only pork when the other guy is getting it.” Otherwise it’s “economic development.”  I think 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.

So, he brought the pork. I think he kind of saw these projects as ladders being dropped off the side of his boat — to help get West Virginians on board with the other advantages and opportunities other states already took for granted.

In fact, he was smarter and more learned than the vast majority of them. He loved beating people’s expectations of him in DC. And he believed West Virginians were just as able and underestimated as he was, on the whole, and deserved opportunities that had been denied them.

So, he brought the pork. I think he kind of saw these projects as ladders being dropped off the side of his boat — to help get West Virginians on board with the other advantages and opportunities other states already took for granted.


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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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