By Mark Tooley @markdtooley
Former U.S. Senator Harry Byrd, Jr. was buried on Saturday in Winchester Virginia after a brief funeral at Christ Episcopal Church, with which the Byrd dynasty was long associated. Presiding at the funeral was his former colleague retired U.S. Senator John Danforth, an ordained Episcopal clergyman who also presided at President Reagan’s funeral.
At age 98 Byrd was the oldest living former Senator. And he was a scion of an old political family. His father, Harry Sr., was governor in the late 1920s and then served as U.S. Senator across 4 decades. His machine, under his own guidance, essentially chose Virginia’s governors across those decades, a control that didn’t end until Virginia’s first Republican governor of the 20th century in 1969, 3 years after Byrd Senior’s death. Byrd Jr. succeeded his father in the U.S. Senate and remained in office until 1982, when he retired, professing no further interest in electoral politics for himself. He helped run the family newspaper in Winchester, which his father had first made successful early in the century. Harry Senior had also created an apple empire in the Shenandoah Valley, making Winchester, for a time, the world’s apple capital. Harry Junior, right through this year, presided at the annual Apple Blossom Festival.
The Byrds were an old, old Virginia family of aristocratic origins, having built famed Westover Plantation on the James River. When the family chose the wrong side in the American Revolution, the Byrds relocated to the then remote Shenandoah Valley to recreate their fortunes. Admiral Richard Byrd, the celebrated Polar explorer, was brother to Harry Senior. The Byrd political machine, during those years when Virginia like all the South was solidly Democratic, was known as a relatively non-corrupt operation, run by Virginia gentlemen who had governed Virginia for generations. It prized fiscal restraint, which Byrds Senior and Junior also zealously advocated in the U.S. Senate. The Byrd machine, like the rest of the old South, was also segregationist, and sadly resisted integration until federal courts and federal legislation insisted otherwise.
Seven Virginia governors, many of them fellow Episcopalians, attended Byrd’s funeral on Saturday, plus former Senator John Warner, an Episcopalian, and Virginia’s current U.S. Senators, one of whom is Episcopalian. Christ Episcopal Church in Winchester’s old downtown was also the famous scene of earlier Byrd funerals. When Byrd Senior’s wife died, President Lyndon Johnson attended the funeral, and a notable photo showed Johnson kissing the outstretched hand of the old Senator from his car, with Byrd Jr. in the backseat. The older Byrd had been a sort of mentor to Johnson in the Senate, and Johnson had first won Byrd’s favor when attending a funeral at the same church for Byrd’s daughter early in Johnson’s senatorial career.
As a journalist and later senator from a famous political family, Byrd Jr. knew many of the great personalities of the last century. He bemusedly recalled Winston Churchill’s 10 day visit at the Virginia governor’s mansion in the 1920s, with then Governor Byrd Senior as host. Churchill unsurprisingly made himself fully at home, not always fully dressed. At a dinner, Churchill requested mustard, prompting Mrs. Byrd to say none was in the house but a servant could fetch some, assuming Churchill would decline. Churchill accepted the offer, and the family was forced to wait at the dinner table while a servant went out shopping for mustard. Mrs. Byrd announced after Churchill left that he was never welcome in her house again, but the Byrd men had been delighted with Churchill, whom Byrd Jr. would later interview as a journalist.
The Byrds have been Anglican since early colonial days in Virginia when it was the state church. Christ Church in Winchester originally dates to 1738, when it was a log church and the only legal congregation in town limits. Dissenting churches had to build outside town. The current sanctuary dates to 1828, and the church of course was a hospital during the Civil War, when Winchester changed hands between northern and southern control many times. Lord Fairfax, who once owned much of Virginia and was a mentor to young George Washington, is buried in the church yard. The Byrds exemplified the old style Episcopal gentility that for centuries dominated Virginia’s elite circles, when Virginia was mostly rural, and power was vested in small town court houses. Born in 1915, when most of Virginia still relied on horses and dirt roads, Byrd was one of the last living links to that era.
At the funeral at Christ Episcopal, Danforth, who said Byrd invited him to conduct his funeral several years ago, hailed Byrd for his “cheerfulness and civility.” The old Episcopal elite is largely fading from the scene, as that denomination becomes marginal, and its historic ethos, once rooted in Virginia’s socially stratified agrarian Tidewater, is mostly forgotten in the modern world of suburbs and megachurches.