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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Byrd's political leadership

Dabney assesses Byrd as an effective and persuasive organizer and compares his leadership with later Virginian politicians. Byrd's attack on business monopolies gave him a liberal image.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
No, I don't think that he was particularly, although he was a very affable, genial man with people he liked. His great forte was his ability to organize, he was a tremendous organizer. All the politicians said that he could organize a campaign better than anybody they ever saw. When he got involved in a campaign, he would get on the phone and he knew exactly whom to call up in every county. He had it all in his head. He knew whom he could count on and what they could do, what happened in that county the last time that there was an election and how the vote stood. He was an absolute encyclopedia on all political matters. He had a right hand man, E.R. Combs, who was a southwest Virginia product, reared in the old hard-boiled tradition of southwest Virginia politics, who knew how to organize; after Byrd told him what to do, he knew exactly how to do it. Combs knew where the bodies were buried. I don't mean that there was a lot of stealing of money or crookedness, but they were really hard boiled when it came to putting the heat on people to make them vote the way they wanted them to. When a young man came into the Virginia General Assembly, Combs would make it very plain to him, in a gentlemanly way, just what he had to do to "make it." He was mild mannered and nice looking, and he would tell this boy, "Now look, son, we want you to get ahead in this organization. We're right with you now and we are going to cooperate with you and we want you to cooperate with us. That's all we ask." And brother, if they didn't cooperate, it was too bad, they didn't get on any committees and they were in the political doghouse. There are lots of examples.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Do you think, then, his masterful way of organizing a campaign, organizing the political process, was really what his strong point was?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
That and knowing the ins and outs of government, how the government operated and how to make it more efficient and more economical. He knew all that very well.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Do you see anybody on the current scene now that even approaches him in that type of organizational method?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I don't know how good Mills Godwin is. I think he is very good and I always have admired him. As for that particular ability, I doubt if he's got it to the same extent; Byrd had it to a superlative degree.
DANIEL JORDAN:
You mentioned Combs. Were there other key lieutenants at this early point in time, say when Byrd was governor, people in the legislature, or people like Combs who held other positions and were indispensable men to Byrd?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, I'm sure there were; the speaker of the house, for example, who changed from time to time, I can't remember exactly who was speaker when he was governor; his father, who had been speaker, had just died. His father didn't live to see him as governor.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, A. Willis Robertson, I believe, came on the scene about the time that Byrd served in the General Assembly. Were they close at that early point in time?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I think they were; they diverged later. At the time when they went in together, I think they were close. They were both from the Valley, and were both young men on their way up.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Mr. Dabney, Senator Byrd had been a newspaper man, a newspaper publisher and became governor. How was his treatment of the press of Virginia at that time? Was he open, was he receptive to be interviewed and so forth?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, he got along with newspaper men very well and made friends with them. He sent each of them a box of apples every Christmas. I got boxes of apples for the entire time that he was in public life until he died. During the '30s, when I was just blasting him from time to time, he kept on sending the apples, which I think was pretty admirable.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Not rotten apples either? (laughter)
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
They were good. Winesaps from the Valley, great big boxes.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Byrd is often regarded as a great friend of business, but it is true that when he was governor, he did tangle with the oil companies and . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Telephone too.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Telephone too. Could you comment on that.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes. He found out that gas was costing more in Virginia than in neighboring states and he didn't see any excuse for that—why Standard Oil or any of the others should charge more in Virginia than in North Carolina or Tennessee, which they were doing. So, he said, "I'm going to make them publish their prices in all these neighboring states." I forget the exact details of how he was going to do that, but that was the idea. He got a bill through the legislature somehow bringing out in the open the fact that prices in Virginia were higher. They put on a terrific lobby; he said he never had seen such a lobby. He put on all the heat that he could and he licked them. Then, the telephone company wanted to raise rates and to put the rates into effect after the State Corporation Commission authorized them and before the Supreme Court had passed on the appeal. They said that they would pay back any excess that had been paid in the interim if they lost the case in the Supreme Court. Well Byrd said that he didn't think that was right, a lot of people would move away and never would get the money back and there wasn't any justification for their collecting the money until the final authority had said that they could collect it. So, he got a law through saying that they couldn't do that. In bucking these two powerful groups, he got a reputation for being quite a liberal. All in all, his administration was really something.