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Byrd staffer writes book about late US senator

By West Virginia Public Broadcasting

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- The late West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd is well known and for the most part, well respected within the state, and the author of a new book about Byrd is hoping to foster understanding of the senator's role on the national stage.

David Corbin has a unique and very personal perspective of Sen. Robert Byrd. For 26 years Corbin worked on Capitol Hill, 16 in Byrd's office on the leadership staff and as a speech writer.

Corbin was in college when he first encountered Byrd. He was an anti-Vietnam War activist protesting Byrd's support for the conflict.

The second encounter came in 1983 when Corbin was teaching history at the University of Maryland and received a congressional fellowship to work in the senator's office under the sponsorship of the American Historical Association.

"I did not know what to expect because as an anti-war activist I was involved in protest against Sen. Byrd so I did not how he'd feel about that and I did not know how I'd feel about working for him," Corbin said.

"Also I was very much aware of what the press always portrayed as his racist, conservative views and I was a lot further to the left," he said

Corbin quickly learned Byrd was nothing like the man he envisioned and didn't fit the stereotype portrayed in the media.

Corbin said probably the biggest misunderstanding about Byrd is that he was a racist and segregationist. Corbin used research with original sources like Congressional records, letters and other documents to debunk the claim, pointing out that when Byrd came to the Senate he hired African-American staffers.

"His was only one of 19 offices of 534 Congressional offices that had African-American staffers," Corbin said. "Byrd used his patronage powers to appoint the very first African-American to the Capitol police force. So he's using his patronage powers to hire African Americans."

Byrd was often criticized for voting against Civil Rights bills in the 1950's and 1960's and Corbin hopes the book sets the record straight.

"He voted for the '57 Civil Rights bill, he voted for the '60 Civil Rights bill," Corbin said.

In the first two chapters Corbin takes readers back to 1920s, '30s and '40s southern West Virginia where Byrd grew up, started his political career and briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan. Corbin said Byrd used three unconventional weapons to build that career: the fiddle, the grocery store and the church.

"He turns all three into very important political tools, and he would never lose an election, he just steamrolls himself through Raleigh County politics, state politics, eventually the United States Senate, each one adapting to the situation," Corbin said.

The fiddle, which Byrd began playing as a child, drew crowds who then heard a political speech. Through his Raleigh County grocery store Byrd helped striking miners by extending them credit when other stores wouldn't. This made them loyal to him at the ballot box. And Byrd became a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher and eventually a radio preacher, delivering God's word with his unique speaking style to hundreds of voters each week.

In 1960 Byrd opposed a young, Catholic Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Corbin said because of this opposition Byrd was portrayed as an anti-Catholic, racist hillbilly.

"It's just not true at all because that totally ignores the fact that once Kennedy got the nomination Byrd goes out and campaigns for John Kennedy," Corbin said.

Corbin point out Byrd campaigned for Kennedy and his running mate Lyndon Johnson in North Carolina and Texas, where there was a large Southern Baptist population.

"It was very important because the Southern Baptists in Texas were furious with LBJ for being on the ticket with John Kennedy," Corbin said. "Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson would attribute their victories in North Carolina and Texas to Byrd's help."

Corbin's research shows John F. Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd had a good personal and working relationship during the President's tenure.

After Corbin delves into Byrd's childhood and rise in West Virginia politics in the book, he breaks the book into 11 more chapters, one for each President Byrd served with.

Corbin came up with the idea of dividing the chapters by presidential administration while sitting with Byrd on the Senate floor just before Byrd delivered a speech about serving for 50 years in the Senate.

"He and I started discussing the speech, looking over the speech, and we started discussing a lot of the historical events he'd been involved in," Corbin said. "We were talking about the cold war, Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate, the near impeachment of Richard Nixon, the impeachment of Bill Clinton."

Corbin said Byrd related each event to the president who was serving at the time and whether he worked or fought with that president. After that conversation it dawned on Corbin that no other senator had served with as many presidents as Byrd.

"A better way to put it, no other person has had so much impact on 11 U.S. presidents," Corbin said. "To put it in perspective, that's one fourth of the presidents in the history of the United States."

Corbin said four pillars were at the heart of everything Byrd did: God, country, the constitution and West Virginia. Corbin also wants the book to convey how well Byrd related to people in the state, which Corbin observed many times traveling around the with the senator in an RV called The Mountain Eagle.

"I saw the way he related to West Virginians, or the way West Virginians related to him is what was amazing," Corbin said. "People would just come up to him and actually they would hug us, his staffers, because we worked for Byrd.

"All over the state, wherever you went, it was just amazing to see the way people gravitated toward the man, just the way they admired him, and the emotional attachment as well as the political attachment."

Corbin hopes to eventually write a full biography about Sen. Byrd.

"The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd's Encounters with 11 United States Presidents" is published by Potomac Books. It will be released next Friday.

Corbin is scheduled to appear at the West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston Oct. 13, and will speak at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University on Oct. 16.


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