Harry Byrd

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Harry Flood Byrd (1887-1966) was a governor and U.S. Senator from Virginia. Through a massive political machine, he influenced Virginia politics from 1930 to 1970 with almost no opposition. A conservative "boll weevil" Democrat, Byrd was responsible for many Virginia political anomalies and curiosities that continue to this day.

Byrd began his political career as an advocate of improved state-sponsored highways, but quickly also picked up numerous other issues after being elected governor of Virginia in 1925. Under his leadership, Virginia instituted a "pay as you go" policy, banning deficit spending. One of his gimmicks was to build state roads to Virginia's many historical sites, such as Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Jamestown.

Byrd began to build a political machine, known locally as simply the "Byrd Organization," in preparation for his 1925 run. He cultivated friendships with the county "courthouse cliques" (commonwealth's attorneys, sheriffs, and clerks of the court), and through them exerted considerable control over local politics, especially in rural southside Virginia. Without the "nod" of the Byrd Organization, no candidate had much chance at statewide office. To eliminate possible sources of opposition, Byrd eliminated all statewide elected offices except Lieutenent Governor and Attorney General.

Against the advice of many in his own state, now-Senator Byrd backed Alfred E. Smith in 1928, refusing to bolt to Herbert Hoover. Byrd also backed Franklin D. Roosevelt, at least at first. But while he supported FDR's internationalist foreign policy, he increasingly disagreed with the New Deal, and became increasingly conservative in his outlook. He refused to endorse either Harry Truman or Adlai Stevenson for president, angering many national partisans. He called for "massive resistance" to integration of schools and other public facilities, and authored the infamous "Southern Manifesto" denouncing integration.

But Byrd's organization had by now begun to develop a life of its own. It turned out votes for Truman, Stevenson, and Kennedy despite Byrd's refusal to endorse any of them. The machine was finally fractured in 1964, and had dissolved completely by 1970.

Byrd never lived to see the GOP surge in Virginia. He died in 1966, replaced by his somewhat more moderate son in the Senate.

Fun Fact: Byrd was joined in his race-baiting and partisan backstabbing fellow conservative Democrat Absalom Robertson, father of Republican nutcase Pat Robertson.

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