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The Rhetoric That Shaped The Abortion Debate
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's a big week for the Supreme Court. The court handed down a gun control
decision today and is preparing to end its term, and Elena Kagan began her
confirmation hearings today.
We're going to look back on a momentous Supreme Court decision that remains
controversial and continues to divide America. In January 1973, the Supreme
Court, in Roe v. Wade, ruled that the right to privacy protected a woman's
decision, in consultation with her doctor, whether to carry her pregnancy to
My guest, Linda Greenhouse, is the coauthor, with Reva Siegel, of the new book
"Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme
The book examines the arguments of abortion rights supporters and opponents in
the years before Roe v. Wade, arguments made by women's groups, medical groups,
religious groups, the courts and others. And the book is filled with
fascinating documents that illustrate how the debate was shaped. There are
plenty of historic surprises.
Linda Greenhouse covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times. She now
writes and online law column for the Times and teaches at Yale.
Linda Greenhouse, welcome back to FRESH AIR. One surprise to me in your book is
that the medical community, which supported decriminalization of abortion at
the time of Roe, a century earlier, had spurred the criminalization of
abortion. In what ways did the medical community support criminalization of
Ms. LINDA GREENHOUSE (Author, "Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the
Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling"): Well, back in the 19th
century, I think there were two things happening. One, of course, abortion was
quite dangerous. So there was a public health concern about abortion.
Any surgery was dangerous. They didn't have sterile technique, and so anytime
any medical instruments were introduced into the body, the patient was in
And number two, abortions were typically performed by people who were not
doctors, and so there was a bit of a competitive edge - or a kind of anti-
competitive edge, you might say- to the medical profession's efforts, which
succeeded in every state in the country, to make abortion a crime.
GROSS: So what changed in the 1960s or early '70s that got the medical
community - meaning, in this case, the AMA - on the side of limited
legalization of abortion?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: The medical impetus to start reforming the old abortion laws
actually came not from the American Medical Association, but from the American
Public Health Association, from the public health profession.
There is a public health doctor, Mary Calderon, who was medical director of
Planned Parenthood and also very active in professional public health circles.
And she wrote some influential articles depicting abortion as a serious public
health issue - that is to say illegal abortion, back-alley abortion, as a
serious public health issue - and basically started calling on the medical
profession to take a new look at this old issue.
Abortion now could be a very safe medical procedure when done properly, under
the right conditions. So the facts on the ground had changed. Women were having
illegal abortions in large numbers. There was a good deal of medical bad
consequences and suffering because of this, and it was really the public health
docs who sounded the call.
GROSS: And it was also more - as you point out, there were also more ways of
noticing high-risk pregnancies, and there was a lot of damage being done to
fetuses to things like German measles and also thalidomide. Women were taking
thalidomide before we knew that it caused terribly deformed babies to be born,
without arms or without legs. So what impact did that have on the medical
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Those things - those two facts, the German measles epidemic in
the 1960s, which was known to - German measles is known to cause serious
defects in a fetus when a pregnant woman contracts German measles in the first
trimester of pregnancy, and there was a big epidemic.
And then this question of thalidomide, the Food and Drug Administration
actually never admitted thalidomide into the country, but it was a commonly
used sleeping aid in Europe.
And babies all over Europe, it was discovered, were being born with the most
devastating defects, basically lacking arms and legs. And we recount this in
the book. We have a document, a narrative from a woman whose name is Sherri
Chessen. Then she was Sherri Finkbine, Miss Sherri of "Romper Room" in Phoenix,
Arizona, in 1962.
Her husband had brought back a bottle of thalidomide, which he had gotten by
prescription on a business trip in London. It wasn't very well-known in the
United States. So she took this. She was pregnant with a much-wanted baby, and
she then read a little article in the newspaper about this thalidomide problem
that was beginning to emerge in Europe.
She called her doctor, and the doctor said oh, good grief, I need to get you an
abortion. Abortion in 1962 was illegal everywhere in the country, and it was
illegal in Arizona, except to save the life of the pregnant woman. And, of
course, her life was not in danger.
But she said, you know, people need to know about this. Other women are also in
danger. And she allowed the word to get out, at which point the hospital said,
oh, we can't give you an abortion now. This is all much too public. And she
couldn't get an abortion anywhere in the United States.
She and her husband ended up going to Sweden, where she had an abortion, and
this became a big national story. It was the cover of Life magazine, and inside
the magazine were pictures of her, a very attractive young woman, and these
devastated babies from Europe without arms and legs.
And I remember, as a young teen, sitting in my living room at home reading this
magazine with just amazement. I had - I don't think I had ever heard the word
abortion or the concept of abortion. You know, back in the early 1960s, people
didn't talk about it. It made a huge impression on me.
GROSS: You know, on a related note, you know, we were talking about Sherri
Finkbine, who had an abortion in Sweden because she couldn't get one in the
United States after she found out that the thalidomide she was taking was
likely to cause her baby to be born with horrible defects.
On the other side of that same predicament, you reprint a letter by Dr. Jane
Hodgson, who in 1970, performed an abortion on a 23-year-old patient who had
German measles early in pregnancy, which would likely lead to the fetus being
born with, you know, terrible physical problems. And the Minnesota law where
she lived permitted abortion only to save a pregnant woman's life. And she
writes - and you have the document in there - I'm probably the only Mayo
alumnus with the dubious distinction of having been arraigned and tried for
committing a felony. And she refers to years of frustration in attempting to
provide a high-grade of medical care under an archaic and cruel law.
Were there many other doctors who you found who felt very frustrated by their
inability to perform abortions because of the law?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Yes. There were certainly doctors in the medical community who
felt that, as a medical service to women in enormous distress, this was
something that they wanted to be able to do.
Not many of them challenged the law openly, as Dr. Hodgson did. She was, as you
mentioned, a Mayo Clinic-trained obstetrician and gynecologist in the Twin
Cities in Minnesota, and she did this very openly.
She and her patient agreed that this would be a test case. And before
performing the abortion, Dr. Hodgson went to federal court asking for an
injunction, asking the federal court to strike down the Minnesota law. And when
the court didn't respond and the pregnancy, of course, was advancing, she
performed the abortion and then called the authorities and basically said come
and get me.
And they came and got her, and they arrested her and they charged her. And she
was convicted and she was sentenced, but the sentence was put on hold because
Roe against Wade was then pending at the Supreme Court. And Roe against Wade
was decided, and so obviously, her sentence was never carried out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Greenhouse. She's the
coauthor of the new book "Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion
Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling." She's the former Supreme Court
correspondent for the New York Times. Let's take a short break here, and then
we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Greenhouse. She's the
coauthor of the new book "Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion
Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling." And she's also the former Supreme
Court correspondent for the New York Times. She currently writes an online
column for the New York Times, and she teaches at Yale.
One of the key phrases in the abortion debate became the right to choose, and -
or that evolved into choice, pro-choice. You have a document about the early
use of that phrase, and this is a memorandum by Jimmye Kimmey, somebody who I'd
never heard of before your book. Tell us who she is and what she did to develop
that phrase, the right to choose.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Jimmye Kimmey was a young woman who was the executive director
of an organization called the Association for the Study of Abortion, ASA, which
was one of the early reform groups and was migrating in the early 1970s from a
position of reforming the existing abortion laws to the outright repeal of
existing abortion laws.
And she wrote a memorandum framing the issue of how the pro-repeal position
should be described, and this is what she wrote to her own staff as they were
trying to frame a kind of a public relations position.
She said the alternatives seemed to be freedom of conscience and right to
choose. I hope someone can think of a clearly better one, but in the meantime,
let me say why I think the latter preferable.
There were two reasons: the first superficial, the second less so. Right to
life is short, catchy, composed of monosyllabic words, an important
consideration in English. We need something comparable. Right to choose would
seem to do the job. Second, more important, is the fact that conscience is an
internal matter, while choice has to do with action, and it's action we are
GROSS: That's really interesting. And so that evolved into pro-choice?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Yes, right to choose, pro-choice. I mean, I wouldn't
necessarily say she was the only one who was coming up with this, but it was an
interesting document to find and the earliest that I did find that showed how
the dialogue was evolving in that pre-Roe period.
GROSS: Another, I think, interesting document that you print in the anti-
abortion side is written by Dr. J.C. Willke and his wife. He was a
gynecologist. She was a nurse. They had done a lot of, like abstinence kind of
work. And in 1971, they co-wrote a handbook on abortion. Tell us a little bit
about their significance.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Right, Dr. Jack Willke is a key figure in the right-to-life
movement. He and his wife self-published this little book called "Handbook on
Abortion" in 1971. It's in the form of questions and answers about abortion
from the right-to-life point of view. And it got distributed like wildfire.
It now exists in many, many editions. People can go on Google or Amazon and
find it easily and translated in many languages, and it really became a Bible
of the right-to-life movement.
And we were grateful to Dr. Willke for giving us permission to republish it.
One reason we wanted to have a substantial excerpt from it that people on the
pro-choice side have never seen it, and it's a very striking document, and his
voice was and continues to be an important voice on that side.
GROSS: One of the things I found most fascinating about this was what he wrote
about rape and incest, and can I just read you an excerpt? And tell me what you
know about this.
One of the questions is: Is pregnancy from rape very common? And the answer is
no. It is extremely rare. Question: Why is this so? Answer: If a girl is raped
or subjected to incestuous intercourse and reports the fact promptly, she's
usually taken immediately for medical attention. This consists of a douche,
commonly a scraping of the uterus and at times doses of medication, one or all
which, while done partially to prevent venereal disease, will almost invariably
prevent her from getting pregnant. If the rape victim would report her assault
properly, there would be, for all practical purposes, no pregnancies from rape.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Right. What I think he's reflecting there is a fear that women
would seek abortions - if there was a rape exception to an abortion
prohibition, women would seek abortions by saying they'd been raped whether
they had been raped or not. That's how I understand that passage.
GROSS: But he's basically describing a D&C here, scraping of the uterus.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Yes. I guess depending on how quickly the woman presented
herself for medical attention. If it's right away, there would not have been
implantation in the uterus, and so what we would think of as a pregnancy
wouldn't have begun.
GROSS: One of the interesting things I find about this "Handbook on Abortion"
is the Willkes' attempt to deal with rape and incest. And one of the question
is: What is meant by the difficulty of proving rape? And then the next question
is: You know, a lot of people say, but think of the poor girl.
And they write: True, if in fact she was actually raped against her will. As
everyone knows, there are many degrees of resistance or consent on the part of
a woman to the act of intercourse. It is easy for a woman rejected by a lover
to then accuse him of raping her. For any kind of justice, some type of proof
must be asked.
Question: What of incest? Incest is intercourse by a father with his daughter,
uncle with niece, et cetera. The same dynamics mentioned above apply. Will
Uncle John admit to having relations with his niece? Never.
It would be her word against his. The court might even believe her, but cannot
act on it legally. Incestuous intercourse is seldom reported, and when
pregnancy does occur, it is not usually reported as being from incest.
So he's totally dismissing the idea of rape or incest as being a cause for
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Right. I read this as a response to the reform talk that was in
the air before Roe against Wade, and some states had begun to legislatively act
on it, that there should be a set of exceptions to the blanket prohibition, and
rape and incest were among the exceptions that legislatures were considering.
And this kind of language in Dr. Willke's "Handbook on Abortion" is a pushback
GROSS: The feminist movement, of course, was a very potent part of the abortion
debate. And you describe how the feminist movement reframed the terms of the
debate. What are some of the things that the feminist movement introduced - new
ways of thinking, new concepts that the feminist movement introduced into the
Ms. GREENHOUSE: The role of the feminist movement was actually one of the
surprises that we found in researching the book. It's natural to think of the
cause of abortion reform as having been part-and-parcel part of the second-wave
feminism of the 1960s. And actually, that was not originally the case. It was,
as we discussed earlier, originally an issue that was put forward by the public
The feminist community at that time, in the mid-60s, was much more interested
in empowering women to take a full place in the economy, in the workplace, so
things like childcare, things like equal pay.
And there wasn't much talk about abortion reform in feminist circles until
quite late in the '60s, when Betty Friedan, in a very influential speech, drew
the connection between the ability of women to participate fully in the economy
and the ability of women to control their reproductive lives.
That, then, began a reframing in feminist terms of the issue of abortion reform
as part of women's empowerment, part of women assuming a new role in society.
And this, in turn, of course, created concern among those who, at the same
time, were concerned about the debate that was going on over whether to ratify
the Equal Rights Amendment.
And the cause of abortion reform became caught up in the cultural shifts and
the cultural struggles of the late '60s and early '70s. By the time that cases
about abortion, challenging the old abortion laws, started filling up the legal
pipeline and making their way to the court, the issue was no longer simply an
issue of public health.
GROSS: But you write about how abortion became a part not only of the culture
war, but of the political debate. And you say that abortion enters the
political arena during the Nixon administration with the help of then-
Republican strategist Kevin Phillips. What did Phillips do to bring the
abortion debate into the Republican Party?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Kevin Phillips and his sidekick as political strategist Patrick
Buchanan perceived as they were working on President Nixon's 1972 reelection
campaign, perceived the role that abortion reform was coming to play in social
and political discourse out in the country. And there was an opportunity that
they saw for political realignment.
It's very interesting that going into that period, when you look at the
polling, the notion of repealing the old criminal abortion laws had majority
support among, actually, all demographics in the country, but more Republicans
than Democrats identified themselves as being for abortion reform.
So here was an opportunity to peel some Democratic voters - mostly urban,
ethnic, Catholic, Democratic voters - away from the Democratic Party, attract
them to the Republican cause if President Nixon could identify with the cause
of preserving the criminalization of abortion, as he then started to do.
So this became the basis for running with the abortion issue and trying to peel
away Democratic voters and beginning the party realignment that didn't really
come to fruition until the late 1970s with the rise of Ronald Reagan.
GROSS: My guest, Linda Greenhouse, will be back in the second half of the show.
She's the coauthor of the new book "Before Roe v. Wade." Greenhouse is a former
New York Times Supreme Court reporter, and now writes an online law column for
the Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with
Linda Greenhouse, co-author of "Before Roe v. Wade." It's about the arguments
of abortion rights supporters and opponents in the years leading up to Roe v.
Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973. Greenhouse
used to cover the Supreme Court for The New York Times and now writes an online
law column for The Times and teaches at Yale.
So when the Supreme Court finally handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade in
1973, giving women a constitutional right to abortion, what were some of the
arguments the court seemed to take to heart and other arguments it seemed to
ignore in its final decision?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, it's interesting, if somebody reads Roe against Wade and
people typically don't, they'll find that it talks mostly about the rights of
doctors to act in what the doctors' think is the best interest of their
patients without facing criminal liability. The voices of women are quite
absent from Roe, and on the other side â on the dissenting side, the voices on
behalf of the unborn are quite absent from Roe.
The dissent is basically aiming its displeasure at what the two justices who
dissented, Justice White and Justice Rehnquist, characterized as the judicial
activism of the decision. So the actual decision reflected only a slice of the
arguments that were swirling around this debate. And we excerpt the briefs and
excerpt the friend of court briefs so that readers can see what was actually
being presented to the court in contrast with what the court actually did.
GROSS: So, exactly what right to abortion did Roe v. Wade give women?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: The Supreme Court in Roe against Wade gave women the right to
decide to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester without any interference
by the government, in the second trimester under government regulations that
could be adopted only for the purpose of protecting health and safety. And in
the third trimester after viability, the state could prohibit abortion with an
exception (unintelligible) for a women's health. That was built into two
decisions that the court issued on January 22nd, 1973, Roe against Wade and Doe
GROSS: And since the Roe v. Wade decision, women's right to abortion has been
narrowed by congressional legislation and state laws. So the arena has changed
a little bit and the right to abortion has been restricted in some ways.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: What's changed in the years since Roe are the procedural
obstacles that the Supreme Court has allowed states to place in the way of
women exercising the right to abortion. So for instance, waiting periods have
been upheld, notice to parents have been upheld for teenagers seeking
abortions. Those kinds regulations and there are new regulations coming down
the pike that may reach the Supreme Court in the foreseeable future. But the
basic right to abortion, the ability of a woman to decide to terminate a
pregnancy has been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court â 1992, Planned Parenthood
against Casey. And so that right does still exist.
GROSS: What are the new challenges to abortion that you expect to come to the
Supreme Court in the near future?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: A few legislatures have passed statutes that seek to discourage
women from going ahead with the abortion by requiring doctors to either show
the woman an ultrasound, to perform an ultrasound and show the image to the
woman, or if the woman declines to look at the image the doctor is required by
law to read her a description of what would be seen on the screen. And this has
been put forward as an effort to inform the woman. What it actually is, is an
effort to make the decision to go ahead with the abortion emotionally fraught
And so these are inevitably going to be challenged. And the current Supreme
Court standard for evaluating a restriction on the right to abortion is the
undue burden standard, whether the regulation at issue places an undue burden
on a women's right â on the exercise of a woman's right to abortion. And so
this kind of legislation will be tested against that standard.
GROSS: Linda Greenhouse, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Thank you, Terry. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Linda Greenhouse is the co-author of the new book "Before Roe v. Wade."
You can read the book's introduction on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Greenhouse is a former New York Times Supreme Court reporter and now writes an
online law column for The Times.
Coming up, we remember Senator Robert Byrd. He died at 3 a.m. at the age of 92.
We'll listen to an interview I recorded with him about his life. This is FRESH
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Fresh Air Remembers Senator Robert Byrd
TERRY GROSS, host:
I had the chance to talk with Senator Robert Byrd in 2004 about his life. We're
going to listen back to an excerpt of that interview. Byrd died at 3 a.m. at
the age of 92. He'd been in failing health. During the health care debate he
was brought into the Senate in his wheelchair to cast his vote. Byrd was a
Democrat from West Virginia who served in the Senate for 51 years and in the
House for six, making him the longest serving member of the Senate and of
Congress. In the Senate he'd served as majority and minority leader and
president pro tem.
I spoke with him when his book "Losing America: Confronting A Reckless and
Arrogant Presidency" was published. It was about his opposition to the Bush
administration. Before the U.S. began to bomb Iraq, Byrd made a now famous
speech in which he criticized the Bush administration for embarking on the
first test of a revolutionary doctrine of preemptive war. He criticized his
fellow senators for being ominously dreadfully silent. No debate. No
GROSS: In your now famous speech of February 12th, 2003 about 35 days before we
bombed Iraq, you called President Bush reckless and arrogant and you criticized
your fellow senators. You said: We stand passively mute in the U.S. Senate
paralyzed by our uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the shear turmoil of events.
This speech appeared on many Internet sites. It was translated into many
different languages. It even for people who weren't necessarily paying that
much attention to your career, you became famous. What difference do you think
this speech actually made in the Senate?
Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): I'm not sure that I could
measure that. I thought that it's something that I felt strongly. I was
astonished to see a Senate which I've long, long come to revere, stand mute.
The men who were there and the one woman who was there when I came to the
Senate would not have stood still. How changed the Senate was. How intimidated
the members were. How afraid they were, many of them, of being called
unpatriotic if they didn't support the commander-in-chief.
GROSS: Now you had been concerned that by giving the president authority to
launch a preemptive attack on a sovereign nation that it would redefine the
nature of defense and reinterpret the Constitution to suit the will of the
executive branch. Do you feel like we've set that precedent now?
Sen. BYRD: Yes. Oh yes. But we've got to get back from that. We've got to
withdraw from that foolish moment and the foolish act that we did. We've got to
take that power back from the president. You see the framers wrote the
Constitution. And when they gave to the Congress the power to declare war they
were giving to the Congress the power to declare war and they were not thinking
in terms of one person or even one body.
It takes two bodies, the House and the Senate, to declare war and it takes many
people. And here we were, here we were acquiescing to an administration that
doesn't really understand the role of the Senate and we were shifting to one
man â this awesome power. And then we were relegating to ourselves the position
of doing nothing. We relegated ourselves to the sidelines and that's where we
GROSS: On March 18th, 2003, you said this on the subject of a preemptive attack
on Iraq, you said: I have urged the president to step back and reconsider his
decisions, but the administration has its eyes shut, its ears covered and its
What are some examples of how you think the administration closed its mind?
Sen. BYRD: It doesn't listen. It doesn't listen to Congress. It looks upon the
Congress with disdain. It just pains me that here is an administration that
doesn't seem to understand the Constitution. It doesn't understand that the
Constitution is we the people of the United States. It doesn't understand that
preamble. And some examples, well, one of example would be the creating of the
department of Homeland Security. It was hatched out in the bowels of the White
House by four men especially, Tom Ridge, fine man, former governor of the state
of Pennsylvania. He was one. Another was the chief counsel, a man by the name
of Gonzalez. Another was the head of the Office of Management and Budget. And
the final one was the man who's down at the White House, the head of staff,
Andrew Card. Those four hatched this idea and the Congress wasn't counseled,
wasn't asked any question.
GROSS: I know you voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution...
Sen. BYRD: I did.
GROSS: ...which authorized the president to use force to repel armed attack and
prevent further aggression in Vietnam. My understanding is that you came to
regret that vote.
Sen. BYRD: I do regret that. And Senator Morris, who was one of the two - the
other one was Ernest Gruening of Alaska - Senator Morris said that we would
live to regret our vote. We have. I regretted my vote. Let me say this about
that. We were misled by an administration. We've been misled in this instance
when the president of the United States and those super hawks around him
brought us in to this war which should never have been fought.
But let's go back to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. One thing about that, it
had a sunset provision which allowed the Congress in a concurrent resolution,
which did not have to go to the president and did not have to be signed with
the president, could sunset that provision. In this case, in the resolution
that was passed on October 11, 2002, there's no provision to sunset the action.
I said look, if we're going to be fools enough to shift this power to one man,
to a president of the United States - and George Bush in particular - we ought
to at least sunset it. I couldn't believe it, that the Senate was willing not
only to give this power to the president, but also to leave it there.
GROSS: You've criticized the Senate for becoming the errand boy of the White
Sen. BYRD: Yes, Yes.
GROSS: Does the Bush administration interact with the Senate any differently
than the other 10 presidents that you've worked with in your years?
Sen. BYRD: I think that the Bush administration expects every Republican
senator to tow the mark. And I feel that the unwritten rule on the other side
of the aisle, as I've observed it, I think that they feel that the first thing,
the last thing and the thing to do always is to support the president. And they
speak the words commander-in-chief as though those words were sacred. And it
saddens me when a political party follows a president as though he were the
king. And I've said from time to time, the commander-in-chief, why, there was a
commander-in-chief in the civil war in England and Charles the First used that
term in 1639.
The term commander-in-chief, that's nothing new. That term did not originate
with the framers in Philadelphia. It's meant to indicate that the civilian -
that the military is under the civilian rule. That's what it's there for. It's
not some sacred thing that has some innate power within itself, but knowing
these days, my friends across the aisle use that term, the commander-in-chief.
Well, he's not the commander-in-chief of the Senate. He's not the commander-in-
chief of industry in this country. He is the civilian authority who is over the
military. That's it. So that - and back to your question, yes, the Republicans
follow their commander-in-chief come hell or high water, it seems to me, and
they all stand in line. I've never seen anything like it.
GROSS: Is this true of Democrats and Republicans?
Sen. BYRD: Well, it's true of Republicans, but it has not always been true of
Republicans. I think a man like George Aiken and Norris Cotton and Everett
Dirksen. These were men who stood on their own. And if it meant that they were
to break with the president, they did so.
GROSS: Now correct me if I'm wrong, but in 2001, you were president pro tem,
and you were third in line of success in the presidency. What was your reaction
when you learned that after September 11th, the Bush administration activated
what you've described as a shadow government of about 100 senior executive
branch officials to live and work secretly outside Washington in the system
reportedly run by the White House?
Sen. BYRD: Well, I was surprised that I'd not been contacted by the White House
or by the administration. This was typical of the Bush administration. Here
they were now, they created a shadow government. They didn't let the president
pro tem of the Senate know anything about it. I read about it in the newspaper.
This is typical of the administration. It is secretive. It likes to operate out
of the White House. I don't think it understands the role of the Legislative
Branch under the Constitution. The sovereignty rests with the people of the
United States, and that's why this administration has left - has left
Constitution. It has left the people, and it's driven by an urge to acquire
GROSS: We're listening to a 2004 interview with Senator Robert Byrd. He died at
3 a.m. at the age of 92. We'll hear more of that interview after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our 2004 interview with Senator Robert Byrd. He died
at 3 a.m. at the age of 92.
Senator Byrd, I'd liked to talk a little bit about your life. I know that your
mother died in 1918 during the flu epidemic, and then you were basically
adopted by, I believe it was an aunt and uncle.
Sen. BYRD: My mother died on Armistice Day, 1918. I was - I lacked a few days
being one-year-old. Before my mother died, in anticipation that she might not
recover from the flu, she asked my father to, if she didn't recover, to give
"the baby," quote/end quote - I was the baby. I had three older brothers and a
sister. I was the baby. And it was her wish that the Byrds, one of my father's
sisters, and her husband take me and raise me. And so on the night of Armistice
Day, my mother went to heaven. And it is because of her wish that I'm a senator
today. My mother's prayer, my mother's wish was that I be something. She said I
was going to be the president of the United States, and she died. I know that
she and her prayers have followed me.
Now the people who took me, they were good people. The man who took me was
named Titus Dalton Byrd, B-Y-R-D. And married one of my natural father's
sisters. Her name was Vlurma, and I was given the name of Robert Carlyle Byrd
by them. And I've met kings and shahs and presidents and governors, and the
greatest man I've ever met was that man who raised me, Titus Dalton Byrd. He
was poor, but he was honest.
GROSS: Now, you grew up during the Depression. Early in your, I guess, teenage
years and early adult life, you made a living in a number of different ways.
You were a gas station attendant. You were a welder. You ran a store. I think
you owned a store actually with your wife. Then you went to law school, and
then first ran for the State House in West Virginia, then for Congress, then
Sen. BYRD: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: I believe it was early in your political career that you briefly joined
the Ku Klux Klan. Now most people know that that was a brief part of your
history. Why did you join?
Sen. BYRD: I joined for a number of reasons. In that day and time, things were
different than they are now. There was a time when my - the man who - Mr. Byrd
who raised me joined the Klan. And in those days, many of the outstanding men
and women in the communities, I am told - was told then - were members.
Lawyers, judges, bankers and others were in the Klan, and so I joined it.
I've regretted that. I've apologized for it. There's nothing more I can do,
except I speak plainly when I condemn the Klan and its tactics. I've, I think,
improved and grown since that time. And I would say - I would urge young men
not to join the Klan. But I've always been so sorry that I joined the Klan.
GROSS: You know, youâve been talking earlier, about how divisive America is and
how disappointed you are in the Senate for not speaking up and acting
independently of the president's wishes. But when you flip back to this period
of America, and are we talking about the 1950s - 40's?
Sen. BYRD: 1940s.
GROSS: 1940s. I mean to think that a young congressman like yourself felt that
it was an important part of...
Sen. BYRD: No. No. No. No.
GROSS: Go ahead.
Sen. BYRD: No. No. I was not a congressman when I joined. This was before I got
GROSS: This was when you were in business?
Sen. BYRD: Well, no, I wasnât in business.
GROSS: Even before that?
Sen. BYRD: I was a meat cutter.
Sen. BYRD: I was a meat cutter. You see, at first I started out as you say, in
the gas station, then I was a produce salesman, then I was a meat cutter. All
this was in the coal camps in southern West Virginia where the atmosphere was
southern, where many - the people who boarded it, my moms house - I call my
aunt my mom. I never knew any other mother but this woman. She never kissed me
in my life but she was stern, very religious and she didnât wear it on her
sleeve. She didnât go around condemning other people and wearing religion on
her sleeve, but she was a great woman. And so times were different then. But I
was not in Congress at that time.
I - my having erred by joining the Ku Klux Klan had long been publicized during
the campaigns when I ran for Congress. But I didnât join the Klan when I was in
GROSS: Finally, as a lot of our listeners know, in addition to having served in
the Senate for many years, you have also fiddled for many years. You love
bluegrass music and you recorded an album in 1978 that we have a copy of. And
I'd like to end with some music from that recording. Is there a track from the
album that you recorded in 1978 that you'd like us to close with? Do you have a
Sen. BYRD: "There's More Pretty Girls Than One" on there, and I think that'd be
Sen. BYRD: Because I hope that my wife listening. Weâve been married, you know,
67 years. I love her and I'd like to send this to her, if I might have that
GROSS: Of course. So youâre dedicating this one to your wife?
Sen. BYRD: Yes.
Sen. Byrd, thank you so much.
Sen. BYRD: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Robert Byrd died at 3AM at the age of 92. Our interview was recorded in
2004. His wife, Erma Ora Byrd, died in 2006.
(Soundbite of song, "There's More Pretty Girls Than One")
Sen. BYRD: (Singing) There's more pretty girls than one. There's more pretty
girls than one. Every town I ramble around there's more pretty girls than one.
GROSS: You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of song, "There's More Pretty Girls Than One")
Sen. BYRD: (Singing) Little girl you turned me down. You left me all alone so
I'm leaving you this lonesome song to sing when I am gone.
There's more pretty girls than one. There's more pretty girls than one. Every
town I ramble around there's more pretty girls than one.
Look down that lonesome road. Hang down your little head and...
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