Of Senators and Framers

John R. MacArthur

The cramped gift shop on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol sells only one book by a serving senator—a slim, red volume misleadingly titled The Senate of the Roman Republic. Misleading because its author, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, composed it not as straightforward history but as a cautionary tale about the death of the Roman republic—a story of self-inflicted decline intended by Byrd to galvanize Americans into defending their constitutional treasures.

Byrd’s book (14 bound speeches) is urgently worth reading. But if, at the end of his funeral oration for Roman self-government, the interested citizen remains unmoved—unconvinced that the American republic is threatened by incipient tyranny—he might be fortunate enough to be persuaded in person by the 86-year-old Democrat in his spacious Capitol office. Which is where I found Byrd in late October, fresh from another in a yearlong series of utterly remarkable speeches denouncing the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and an ongoing “policy based largely on propaganda, hype and prevarication.”

Addressing his colleagues on October 17, Byrd outdid himself rhetorically—and came as close to losing his temper as his deeply engrained courtliness will permit. Railing against the $87 billion supplemental appropriations bill for occupation and “reconstruction” in Iraq, the dean of the Senate reprised the fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” to illustrate how the country was marched into war by a Praetorian guard of confidence men egged on by a president’s vanity—and how the con game persists.

“We were frightened with visions of mushroom clouds, but they turned out to be only vapors of the mind,” Byrd thundered. “We were told that major combat was over, but 101 [179 as of Nov. 20] Americans have died in combat since that proclamation from the deck of an aircraft carrier by our very own emperor in his new clothes. Our emperor says that we are not occupiers, yet we show no inclination to relinquish the country of Iraq to its people.”

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Byrd has been speaking since September last year to a largely empty chamber, ignored by his war-fevered Republican colleagues and most of his “sheep-like” Democratic ones, as well as their handmaidens in the media. But this time his scathing eloquence hit home, provoking a rejoinder—at once nasty and ignorant—from Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

“Think of the young men and women in Iraq … They get [your speech] on C-SPAN,” Stevens growled. “Think of what they are thinking when a senator says they are over there because of a falsehood, because the president of United States lied. … Those who vote against this bill will be voting against supporting our men and women in the field.” Unsurprisingly, Stevens expressed child-like faith in the president’s fairy tale. Unsurprisingly, Byrd took umbrage at such a “canard.”

“Let the record not stand with the senator’s words … that those who vote against this bill are voting against the troops,” Byrd replied. “I defy that statement … and hurl it back into the teeth of the senator from Alaska. … There are millions of people out there … there are many men and women in Iraq who believe that we who vote against this bill today speak for them. … Yes, I voted against sending troops into Iraq. Yes, I am one of the 23. And if I had it to do over again, I would vote the same way again—10 times, 10 times a hundred against this doctrine of preemptive strikes. Fie on that doctrine! Fie on it!”

This time the senior senator from West Virginia was one of 12 to vote no. Two weeks later, on November. 3, when the final version of the appropriation came to a voice vote, Byrd’s was the only audible dissent heard in the Senate chamber. Classical to the end, he termed the bill’s passage a “pyrrhic victory” for the administration.

A more sedate Byrd received me, but the anger still smoldered. The Senate “lost its way” when it passed the war authorization bill on October 11, 2002, in direct contravention of the intent of the “forefathers.” S.J. Res. 46, as Byrd still refers to it, was unconstitutional because it handed over Congress’ war-declaring power to the president, who henceforth became war legislator and war commander. “[This] pernicious doctrine of preemption cannot be constitutional because the framers thought it was wise to put the making of war and the declaring of war in different hands,” he said. “Therefore, they put the power to declare war … in the Congress, so that such a momentous decision could not be by one man but by many. We placed the declaring of war in the hands of one individual. Out of 275 million, one man was to declare war. … The lives of untold thousands men and women were placed in that one man’s hands. The framers would have been really disturbed if they’d have been here.”

And they would have been horrified by the Senate’s decline as an institution. The passage of S.J. Res. 46 “represented more than just intimidation and fear of reprisal at the polls,” he said. Senators had “lost this quality of pride and dedication—to something that’s higher than politics, than Bush being elected and re-elected—the higher goal of service to the nation, the recognition of the Senate’s place [as] the bedrock of the constitutional system.”

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By contrast, “Roman senators served without pay. They believed that service to the state was of the highest order” and they were deeply proud to be Roman citizens. Today’s U.S. senators are no longer grounded in the classics of Greek and Roman literature, or even the Federalist Papers, and thus lack “a deeper feel of what makes the senator in the Senate.”

“They’re very bright, well read as to current events,” Byrd said of the younger generation. “And they’re quick on their toes—they come up with the 10-second sound bytes, whereas, it takes me several minutes to say howdy. I try to think before I speak.”

Along with reflection, civility has declined. When the unprepossessing Byrd was sworn in to the “more genteel” Senate of 1959, “there was not so much the partisan bitterness, not so much the fighting, the slash and burn that you find today. Those senators were here because they wanted to be senators, not because they wanted to be president.”

And they took more seriously the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to debate (at length) and amend (at will) bills sent up from the House of Representatives. Byrd was outraged that the war resolution passed, not only with so little discussion but lacking a sunset provision that would have forced Bush to return to Congress for re-authorization. Byrd’s 12-month sunset amendment garnered 31 votes: “That was absolutely amazing that senators, especially Democratic senators, would vote against sunsetting the provision. I think [they] were intimidated by the false cry of being seen as unpatriotic.”

Byrd understands the danger of open-ended war resolutions. Having been mislead into voting for Lyndon Johnson’s fraudulent Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, he wasn’t going to be fooled again. S.J. Res. 46 was even worse, he said, because the Tonkin Gulf authorization specified Congress’ right to terminate military action.

In all this fawning deference to Bush, Byrd sees “a kind of subliminal hero worship or feeling that the White House and the occupant thereof are clothed with the vestigial remnants of royalty.” To Byrd, “the president is just another hired hand, like I am.” Under the Constitution, “the Senate can send him packing, but the president cannot send the senators packing.”

That’s just what the tyrants Julius Caesar and Mark Antony did to the Roman Senate. And if the fall of republican Rome is any guide, then the American republic is in grave danger.

It’s no coincidence that Byrd’s rhetorical tour de force on Iraq bears a strong resemblance to the speeches of Cicero, who also viewed himself as the principal defender of the Senate as institutional bulwark against a military usurper. Eight days before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Antony, as tribune, vetoed a proposal to declare Caesar a public enemy if he refused to disband his army. “You rejected all efforts to open negotiations with you about upholding the authority of the House,” Cicero wrote in the most famous of his Philippics against Antony. “Yet the matter at stake was nothing less than your itch to plunge the whole country into anarchy and desolation. … You, Antony, were the man who provided the pretext for this most catastrophic of wars.”

“Vote to save your country,” Byrd exhorted his colleagues when he clashed with Stevens. “No commander in chief brought me here, and no commander in chief is going to send me home. My first and last stand by which I live and by which I hope to die is this Constitution of the United States.”

Antony had Cicero murdered for his defiance. Byrd and his ilk are being killed by silence.

John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. He’s the author of The Selling of Free Trade and You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.
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