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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 increasing power through machine politics

Byrd's political machine decreased Virginia's bureaucracy, but the short ballot made the state political system an oligarchy. Ironically, as Byrd fought centralized power in the federal government, he assumed centralized power in the state government.

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

Contrary to the expectations of the machine, he started off immediately by instituting a lot of reforms that they were not happy about. He was sensible enough to see that the time had come to get some simplification and economy into the state government, which had just been spreading out, crawling all over the landscape and creating new bureaus and jobs to take care of the "boys." He knew that the group behind Mapp had a good deal on their side when they said that the state government was badly outmoded, that the machine was dying of dry rot and if something wasn't done, the whole thing was just going to go to pot. He knew that was a big political issue and that he must grab that issue when he got in and put across the reform that his predecessor Governor E. Lee Trinkle, had tried to put across without sucess. Trinkle tried to do a good many of the things that Byrd put through later. Trinkle couldn't get to first base because he wasn't in with the organization to a sufficient degree. But Byrd, with his great personal appeal, and his ability to handle the politicians persuaded them in an almost miraculous way to put in a whole list of things that were absolutely essential and put the Virginia government in the forefront of such governments in the United States from the standpoint of efficiency. The short ballot was the major reform that he managed to get through. He had a tight squeeze on that; there were, I think, three parts to that and they all were approved by a close margin. It limited the number of politicians elected to state office to three, the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, whereas a number of others had previously been elected. Most voters didn't know a thing about these latter officials they were voting for. For most people they were just names. The progressive thought in the country at that time was to have a limited number of officeholders elected and the rest appointed by the governor, and to hold him responsible if things didn't work well. Byrd put that through after making a great campaign, and was applauded over the country for it. He had a survey made by the New York Bureau of Municipal Research which recommended a lot of things which were done, and some that were not. Their recommendations were screened by a committee of Virginians, who eliminated some of the recommendations, but enough remained. The number of departments was reduced from something like 90 to 14 or thereabouts, I can't remember the exact figures. Anyway, a lot of superfluous dead wood was eliminated. A good deal of money was saved; it doesn't sound like much now, it was either $400,000 or $800,000 a year, depending on who did the estimating. Neither figure sounds very big now, but in the early 1930s, that was an awful lot of money. So, Byrd became recognized as a great progressive, forward-looking governor. He put across the best anti-lynching bill that any state had adopted; in fact, the first that had any teeth in it, subjecting any participant in a lynch mob to a murder charge. So, he was very highly regarded and even a national figure. Roosevelt either wanted to get him into the cabinet or on the ticket as vice-president.
One impact of his many changes was the centralized power in the governor and some people would regard that as paradoxical since Byrd, at least on the national level, opposed that notion and didn't like the idea of centralized power in the federal government. Do you have any comment on that?
The point was made by me a good many times in editorials and otherwise that there was a direct conflict between his attitude on one hand and on the other. I never had any statement from him on it. He just kept on fighting centralization in Washington and did not try to explain why it was that he did it in contradiction to his attitudes in state affairs. That's just one of those unresolved mysteries . . .