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Harry Byrd's Virginia

Brass Tacks

Exactly four men served Virginia in the United States Senate from 1920 until Harry Flood Byrd retired last week. That fact measures the continuity and power of the Virginia political organization most recently known as the Byrd Machine. But now the Machine is no longer Byrd's. In the last few years of the Senator's tenure, it has moved away from the ideological rigidity that has been its trademark for 70 years.

The Virginia Democratic Machine, since the 1890's, has unswervingly stood for white supremacy, a restricted suffrage, balanced budgets, and regressive taxation. Ever since the Constitution of 1901-1902 barred more than half the electorate from the polls, the Machine has had little trouble winning most Virginia elections. Its gentleman-politicians have governed honestly, efficiently, and as little as possible. Virginia's per capita expenditures on education, for example, have consistently ranked slightly above Mississippi's.

Harry Byrd's uncle, Congressman Hal Flood, was one of the Machine's leaders till his death in 1921, and Byrd's father was speaker of the House of Delegates. But Byrd's own cleverness won him the governorship in 1925 at age 38, extraordinarily young for Virginia. With intelligence and attention to detail, he soon gained control of the already thirty-year-old Machine.

Byrd's record as Governor is typical of Machine rule. He balanced the budget, turned a state deficit into a surplus, and levied higher taxes on persons with low incomes. He cut spending by reorganizing the state government. He had the legislature pass an anti-lynching law and sponsored a large road-building program (Byrd likes to drive: the automobile is apparently the only twentieth-century innovation he accepts).

Byrd has dominated Virginia politics through networks of county officials entirely subservient to the Democratic organization. Men who disagreed with the Senator on any issue were simply denied public office for the rest of their lives. Dissenting candidates simply cannot win elections with the small, well-to-do electorate and incredibly low voter turnout. Few Virginia Governors have received the votes of as much as 10 per cent of the state's adult population in the decisive Democratic primary.

So Harry Byrd controlled Virginia politics from 1925 through the 1960's as much as any one man has ever controlled the political life of any one state. But lately, the Senator has been too sick and too tired to give the Machine the kind of close attention it demands. When Governor J. Lindsay Almond abandoned Massive Resistance (to integration) in 1959, he was committing apostasy. The Machine was forced, against its will, to compromise on white supremacy.

Curiously, the Governor-elect Mills Godwin has abandoned white supremacy altogether, and has even hinted that he might step-up spending for things like education and public services. Godwin's sharp turn away from the seventy-year-old Machine ideology is the most concrete sign of the end of Byrd's leadership.

It is also a sign that the political situation in Virginia is finally changing. Voter turnout is increasing, and not only because of recent increases in the number of Negro voters. Virginia's population is growing rapidly in suburban areas around. Washington and the Norfolk-Newport News areas; new voters in these areas do not care for the Machine's country courthouse politicians.

The Godwin campaign suggests that the Machine is adapting to new conditions. Godwin lost votes to a third party Conservative in the Southside, the heart of rural segregationist sentiment in Virginia. He gained a huge percentage of votes from urban Negroes, most of whom had voted Republican before Goldwater. He ran fairly well in the city and suburban areas in general, where the Machine has always been weak.

Machine candidates cannot count on beating either Democratic dissenters or Republican opponents without taking novel, perhaps even liberal stands on issues. That means that Harry Byrd, Jr., appointed to the Senate by outgoing Governor Harrison (who announced Byrd's resignation with tears in his eyes), will probably face a tough fight to retain his father's seat. Byrd, a veteran of the State Senate, is considered a political lightweight and will not be a particularly attractive candidate.

Virginia may see other political contests in the near future. Senator A. Willis Robertson is 78; Governor-elect Godwin is probably eager to win a Senate seat and currently, all-Democrats from the Byrds to the AFL-CIO are happy with him. The Republicans, if they can recapture the Negro vote, may even be able to win statewide election. There is every possibility, then, that Virginia may send more men to the U.S. Senate in the next five years than it has in the last forty-five.