WASHINGTON — It was, many agreed, one of the nastiest exchanges on the Senate floor in recent memory. Disregarding the Senate's starchy decorum one evening last August, Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) accused Bob Dole of abusing the power of the majority leader's post to block Democrats from bringing up South African sanctions legislation.
"I have never understood that, just because a senator is a majority leader . . . he alone has all the rights in the Senate," Byrd snapped.
Shot back Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.): "We learned most of what we know from the distinguished senator from West Virginia."
And, now that the Senate is back in Democratic hands after six years of GOP control, Byrd is prepared to resume his role as instructor to the Republicans, expressing confidence that Democratic colleagues will reelect him to the majority leader post he held for four years before the GOP captured the Senate in 1980. His only announced opposition is Louisiana Democrat J. Bennett Johnston, and Byrd says flatly, "I've got the votes."
Indeed, Byrd's abilities at using the Senate's arcane rules and bringing fellow senators into line are the stuff of parliamentary legend. He even draws comparisons as a Senate Democratic leader with legendary arm-twister Lyndon B. Johnson, although Byrd's reserved style could not be more different from that of the overbearing Texan who ultimately became President.
But others say they are uncertain as to whether the fiddle-playing son of a West Virginia coal miner is the man to become his party's chief spokesman in the television era--particularly when he will be up against a President whose mastery of the camera is as notable as Byrd's command of the Senate's workings.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor, describes Byrd, who will be 69 this month, as "a superb legislative tactician" but "a public relations disaster . . . . He's an old back-room politico, not terribly polished, not very persuasive. He cannot move people."
Those close to Byrd say that he is conscious of such criticism and is working to improve his public presence--striving, for example, to replace his rhetorical flourishes with short, punchy sentences that make what is known as a good "sound bite" for network news shows.
Rather than bringing in a professional media consultant, however, Byrd is said to be trying, characteristically, to learn such techniques on his own. It is not unlike his decision as a young Depression-era grocer to better his lot by studying a butcher's manual--a move that helped him to increase his salary from $55 a month to $85.
'Full of Inner Devils'
Despite his leadership role, Byrd does not blend into the clubby, aristocratic atmosphere of the Senate. One Democratic source describes Byrd as "a man full of inner devils."
What he has succeeded in doing--and what could carry him to victory again as majority leader--is quietly collecting what many describe as "chits," providing a favor here and there, such as scheduling business so as not to conflict with a senator's important fund-raiser.
It was just such a system that allowed him to parlay a relatively minor leadership position in 1971 into a stunning ouster of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) from the Democrats' No. 2 job, party whip. Six years later, Byrd got the top post on the retirement of Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana.
Byrd's potential vulnerability to an ouster as his party's leader in the Senate came to light two years ago, when he was challenged four days before the leadership elections by Florida Democrat Lawton Chiles. Byrd won, 36 to 11, but, since then, some Democrats have privately been casting about for a replacement.
His background would seem to have made him an unlikely person to become one of the nation's top political figures. Byrd, born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr., never knew his mother, who died when he was a baby. He was renamed and reared by an aunt and uncle.
Fiddled on Campaign Trail
He was dismissed as a long-shot when he entered politics at the age of 29, so he began taking his fiddle along with him as he campaigned for the state Legislature, hoping the music would hold voters' attention if issues didn't. He still enjoys fiddling and singing and cites "There's More Pretty Girls Than One" as his favorite song.
Byrd belonged to the Ku Klux Klan during the 1940s (a membership he dismissed as a "youthful mistake" when it emerged as an issue in his first congressional campaign in 1952), and he joined other Southerners in filibustering against major civil rights legislation during the 1960s. But, by the 1980s, he was a champion of efforts to strengthen federal fair housing laws.
In essence, his life has been a struggle to shake the shadows of his past. He once told a reporter that he had been embarrassed to be introduced as a butcher at a political rally attended primarily by lawyers. It wasn't until he was elected to the Senate that he finally completed his law degree, but he did it: After seven years of studying at night, he was graduated with honors from American University Law School at the age of 45.