Back in the ‘60s, my friends’ parents who were active in Arlington politics lamented “the Byrd Machine.” But as a teen I held only a vague notion of why political attitudes in Northern Virginia differed from those I’d sensed about Richmond.
On March 9, Alexandria-based radio reporter Michael Lee Pope brought some clarity; he spoke to the Arlington Historical Society about his new book “The Byrd Machine: The Rise and Fall of a Conservative Political Organization.”
That famous movement built by Winchester, Va., businessman-legislator Harry Flood Byrd flourished from the 1920s-1960s, Pope observed, and retains a “zombie”-like influence on our elections today. But you have to understand that the “Dixiecrats,” or southern Democrats, are far more right-wing and segregationist than their northern party-mates.
Harry F. Byrd (1887-1966), a state senator, governor and U.S. Senator, traced his ancestry to 17th-century Gov. William Byrd. But he was raised in “genteel poverty” in the Shenandoah Valley by a father (Richard) who was a Virginia House Speaker, newspaper owner and apple orchard entrepreneur. Pope stressed that Virginia’s tight spending policy of “pay as you go” (don’t borrow) is traceable to Harry Byrd’s struggling to maintain his father’s Winchester Star by rationing newsprint to keep ahead of competitors. The son would parlay the apple orchards—16 varieties — into one of the world’s largest. Young Byrd spotted a coming need for new roads in rural Virginia, becoming president of the Valley Turnpike Co. That put him in touch with rural voters who sympathized with “pay as you go.” He became chair of the Virginia Democratic Party.
Byrd had plenty of models for machines. Pope mentioned Tweed in New York City, Pendergast in Kansas City and Curley in Boston before sketching Byrd’s Virginia predecessors William Mahone and Thomas Staples Martin.
What a political organization did, Pope said, was move with “an iron fist and velvet glove” to control power levers via a network that controlled patronage appointments of judges, sheriffs, clerks, education supervisors, assessors and welfare supervisors. In Virginia, that combined with hostility toward black voters—the “purifying” of the electorate driven home via newly installed Confederate statues. Byrd’s allies included Gov. Claude Swanson (namesake for an Arlington middle school). When Swanson in 1933 was appointed Navy Secretary, his U.S. Senate seat was given to Harry Byrd, who would occupy it until the mid-1960s (followed by son Harry Jr.). Democratic presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson all felt the Byrd’s sting, whose rare intraparty opposition came in the 1950s from “Young Turk” Alexandria lawyer Armistead Boothe.
Byrd’s agenda was advanced by protégé governors Bill Tuck and Lindsay Almond. Tuck curbed trade unions (think “right to work” laws), and Almond executed “massive resistance” to U.S. Supreme Court-ordered school desegregation with racist rhetoric.
Byrd’s modern legacy, Pope concluded, includes “the short ballot”—Virginia is unusual in that statewide it elects only the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, while the governor fills key positions like secretary of the commonwealth and public instruction superintendent. Also, the tradition of low-turnout elections and the legislative balancing act required to enact spending preserved Byrd’s low priority for public education.
Byrd recently fell into disfavor in Richmond — his statue in 2021 was removed from the statehouse. Pope speculated there could be a new name for the Harry Flood Byrd Highway (Route 7) that runs from Alexandria through Fairfax, Loudoun and Clarke counties.
Arlington’s “wars” over the senior citizen’s love for pickleball made the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” March 7. The comedian cited reporting by Arlington-based Axios on the clash, though Arlnow gets credit for breaking the story of neighbors’ complaints about the noise of popping balls at the Walter Reed Community Center.
The comic’s setup: “Arlington County wants to build nine new pickleball courts, but homeowners in the area hate the idea so much that they’ve started distributing flyers that accuse pickleball players of hijacking tennis and basketball courts, bullying children, and urinating in public.”
The proper place for public urination, Colbert corrected, is “aqua-robics.”