INTRODUCTION: Is Joe Manchin the Anti-Byrd?

Whither the legacy of Joe Manchin compared to Robert C. Byrd? | illustration | june 8, 2022

By Douglas John Imbrogno | Editor, | June2022

Joe Manchin had big shoes to fill when in 2010 he assumed the seat — the throne, really — of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who had much to overcome in his own life, including his early racist politics and civil rights obstruction.

The legendary senator from southern West Virginia spent much of the latter half of his career flipping the bird — metaphorically — at that Byrd who was a rising Ku Klux Klan-supporting politico and Exalted Cyclops deep in the state’s back hills. (I have been to Sophia, the community where he was raised — Byrd was actually born in North Carolina — and in a state of serpentine roads corkscrewing into the hills, the road to his homeplace is one of the corkscrewiest.)

Later in his career, Byrd apologized “a thousand times” for “the greatest mistake I ever made,” for aligning his political fortunes with endemic racism as an aspiring politician looking to curry local support and influence. He compounded this racist stratagem by grandstanding a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and blocking most of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative and its anti-poverty programs.

Byrd’s moral compass realigned itself as he aged, and he awoke from the fever dream of racism. So much so that when he died at age 92 on June 28, 2010, the NAACP released a statement saying that over the course of his life — and most significantly, his voting record — the senator “became a champion for civil rights and liberties” and “came to consistently support the NAACP civil rights agenda.”

The billions of federal dollars Robert C. Byrd directed back to West Virginia were a downpayment and compensation for what has been looted from the state for most of its history.

Robert C. Byrd fans just a few of the dollars he brought back to West Virginia during his long run as a senator. | illustration | June 8, 2022

Byrd also, of course, directed billions of dollars back to West Virginia, its communities and people. This earned him constant sneering in the national media and in D.C. hothouse politics as “The Prince of Pork.” I have long had a completely opposite take.

West Virginia is the sole state entirely encompassed within the Appalachian Regional Commission’s official boundaries for the 13-state, 420-county expanse it designates “Appalachia.” So much of that region — and this is especially true of so much of West Virginia — has been exploited, plundered, and ravaged of its wealth and resources. What has been left behind? Despoiled hills and waterways, vacant communities, and wracked bodies riddled with Black Lung Disease and other torturous maladies. In an epic phrase coined by Harry Caudill in “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area,” the Appalachian outback has been used as “a national sacrifice zone.” It has often been “left behind” in the other sense of that phrase: by the tides of modernity, of economic self-sufficiency, and of self-governing independence.

So the billions of federal dollars Robert C. Byrd directed back to West Virginia were a downpayment and compensation for what has been looted from the state for most of its history.

Robert Byrd set right his political legacy. There’s a reason his name is plastered all over the state, and it’s not just because he brought home the bacon (and the FBI Center, and the interstate corridors, and the medical center funding, and …)

These are the outward manifestations of a politician who, finally, was looking after the best interests of his constituents, while redirecting more than a century of wealth’s outflow back into West Virginia. Because, finally, someone could. And — in one of the final hurrahs of his long career — he also looked after the country’s best interests, going toe-to-toe with the Bush-Cheney administration as it sought to dive-bomb America into a bloody, devastating quagmire in Iraq.

Joe Manchin took over in 2010 from Sen. Robert C. Byrd. It was a sea change for the powerful Congressional seat. | photo-illustration | June 8, 2022

However complicated his life story, Byrd left a legacy of accomplishment that benefited the state and the nation he represented. The end game of his career also set the example of what a U.S. Senator looks like when he or she stands up and objects when America runs off the rails.

So, a couple of questions, then, about Joseph Manchin III.

Is Joe Manchin the Anti-Byrd?

Or does he have a career and legacy-defining transformation in him at this late date ?

Or will he, instead, watch in blithe unconcern the return to power of a Republican Party that has hitched its star to the amoral cruelty of power-hungry Trumpism, in which no machination, no subterfuge or coordinated campaign of lies and Constitution-shredding is off the table? Even to the point of green-lighting, cheering on, and apparently helping to plan the overthrow of a legitimate election by bloody coup d’état? (This week’s start of the Jan. 6 hearings in Washington, D.C. will draw all of that into clear focus.)

Joe Manchin is effectively assisting that terrible transformation into autocracy by trading in happy talk of a bipartisanship that is not, and will not be, reciprocated.

Will the successor to Byrd’s seat assist, through obstruction of progressive Democratic aims, the return to power of the Trumpublican Party — from which Dwight Eisenhower or Nelson Rockefeller would recoil in horror at what is being perpetrated in the name of a Republican Party now lost to history?

Joe Manchin is effectively assisting that terrible transformation into autocracy by trading in happy talk of a bipartisanship that is not, and will not be, reciprocated. He stands like a crossing guard holding up a ‘STOP’ sign whenever the Biden administration pushes toward real, substantative change.

Just as importantly, will he yet again torpedo, at the last moment, a final attempt — possibly for many long years in Congress — at taking historic action on the climate crisis? Or will he again be complicit in his inaction while the planet plunges like a runaway train off a catastrophic ‘that’s-all-folks’ cliff of no return?

Say it ain’t so, Joe.


The thing is is this. I also suspect Joe Manchin has been having the time of his life as America’s unofficial prime minister. I sometimes wonder if he harbors a secret satisfaction: ‘Forget Robert C. Byrd! I am as powerful — maybe more powerful, right now — than that old codger ever was!’

After all, the senator from West Virginia — of all the places — is THE guy you have to go through to get where you wish to go. Everyone wants his vote! Everyone wants his ear! Everyone is constantly chasing him down, with phones, tape recorders and cameras held aloft:

What will Joe say or do now?!?’

Or, as has been too often the case in these perilous times: What will he not do.

Colorized screen image from a 2010 commercial in which Joe Manchin shotgunned an Obama Administration cap-and-trade bill. | illustration | June 8, 2022

I will end with a couple of informational graphics I made while doing climate action communication work in West Virginia in the last two years. The details in the graphics speak directly to the Byrd/Manchin comparison.

Joe Manchin went on Fox News one Sunday in December 2021 and shot down President Biden’s grandly ambitious $1.7 trillion Build Back Better initiative. It was as vivid a metaphoric blast as the literal one depicted in his infamous 2010 commercial, when Manchin literally shotgunned a cap-and-trade climate bill “because it’s bad for West Virginia,” while running for Byrd’s seat.

It is worth pausing over the Build Back Better bill. As the New Yorker noted at the time of Manchin’s “I can’t get there” Fox moment, the BBB bill would “provide universal pre-K, expand health-care access, and supply generous tax incentives for green energy,” and a whole lot more. Take a scroll below through the graphics for the whole-lot-more of it.

Build Back Better’s initiatives (CLICK ARROWS TO VIEW SLIDES):

That sounds like a lot of really good bacon for the millionaire Maserati-driving senator from a poor state to bring back home to West Virginia, in the legendary fashion, say, of a certain pork-barrel king, a guy who sought to pull his constituents out of intergenerational misery presided over by a long parade of corporate looters and callous industrial overlords.

Build Back Better would have injected billions into West Virginia, directly helping communities and families in cities, towns, and hollers from Huntington to Martinsburg, Wheeling to Bluefield. Across America, it would have done so much and in so many different areas of daily life that here is how The New Yorker headlined their article on Manchin’s FOX announcement:

‘JOE MANCHIN KILLS THE BUILD BACK BETTER BILL: How will the country ever address the enduring market failures, glaring inequality, and big social-safety-net gaps that the plan was designed to tackle?

Really good question.

And here’s another one we will reiterate throughout this special issue:

Is Joe Manchin the Anti-Byrd?

Or like Robert C. Byrd, will his late-career offer up some transformative, legacy-defining, last-minute leadership?


Sen. Manchin continues to invoke a particular spectre to shift the blame for his political inaction. It is that spending too much government cash on social remedies that help families, kids, and communities, plus climate measures that forestall an earthly apocalypse, plus safety net-mending for non-Maserati multi-millionaires, will lead to inflation. (Forget that he has never once blinked twice at voting for massive, multi-trillion-dollar defense spending.)

Here are a final few words on that: Illustration | June 8, 2022

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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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