I drank more. I drank less. I worked out every day. I fostered rescue dogs and let them curl up at my feet. I tried old standbys. Crackling rainstorms. Ribbiting and cawing jungles. Philip Glass. I dived more deeply into YouTube and found a popular channel of ASMR videos, where Maria folds hand towels and plucks at combs for 1.3 million subscribers chasing a tingling sensation in their scalps. I went more obscure and queued up a woman whispering The Little Prince in French.
Nothing worked. It was May 2015, and I could not sleep.
I can’t remember what internet wormhole I’d tumbled through when I hit the jackpot: the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, delivering 14 hours of lectures about the rise and fall of the Roman Senate. In 1993, President Bill Clinton was lobbying the Senate to pass a line-item veto bill that would give him the power to strike individual spending projects from the federal budget. Byrd had recently assumed the chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee and pumped more than $1 billion of pork back to his impoverished state. A line-item veto threatened his dreams of more highways, fisheries, and theater restorations.
And so, once a week over four months, Byrd traced the slide from republic to empire, Romulus to Julius Caesar. His argument was self-serving but also historically cogent — surrender the power of the purse to the executive and America will suffer Rome’s fate. And the whole thing, all 14 hours of it, was collecting dust on YouTube.
As cameras roll, a chyron periodically flashes: “Senators may speak on any subject during a morning business period.” Byrd, who was 75 at the time, speaks slowly. Very slowly. He’s like a barely moving bicycle that you’re sure is about to tip over until another turn of the handlebars buys a few more feet. He opens with a 56-word sentence that requires 62 seconds. In a 2006 TED Talk about climate change, by comparison, Al Gore, one of the slowest talkers of his political generation, clocks in at a blazing 133 words per minute.
Byrd’s staccato is so self-assured and natural that he must have exited the womb in a blazer, white hair neatly coifed. Except Byrd grew up poor. His erudition was self-taught. The patrician accent sails along — until he rushes through a dozen words, and suddenly he’s a country boy again with a mouth full of pebbles. Other times, Appalachian molasses oozes out. The s’s in “Cincinnatus” and “Spurius Postumius” hiss and simmer. Vowels accordion for no reason: Hannibal “had maintained an espion-AHHHge system in Italy.”
Byrd’s voice is ear candy, and so are the long pauses in between. Feet pad across old carpet. Senate pages whisper. A clerk’s telephone rings. The white noise of democracy. His words are unimportant. You barely register them. It’s 1993 and The Adults are in charge. It is a safe place to close your eyes.
And so I did. I slept through the hottest summer on record and the Mad Max reboot and was certainly asleep, along with many other people, when a man and his wife rode down an escalator as Neil Young screamed “Rockin’ in the Free World” and Hillary forgot to visit Wisconsin.
Byrd died, in 2010, as the longest-serving senator in U.S. history. First elected to Congress in 1952, Byrd was the last of the old Southern Democrats and a link to a bygone era. He was an antique, and antique stores can be ugly places. Byrd was deeply flawed. As a young man, he jump-started his political career by joining the Ku Klux Klan. In 1964, he filibustered the Civil Rights Act for 14 hours. Google him today and you’ll find Byrd has been reincarnated as a far-right punching bag: If President Trump is so bad, why did the Democrats harbor a member of the KKK?
And yet Byrd also evolved. He apologized. He integrated the Capitol police corps for the first time since Reconstruction and pushed for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to become a national holiday. After Byrd’s death, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous said that he “reflects the transformative power of this nation.” At a moment when both halves of the country hope the other will repent, a man capable of that kind of personal change might have something to say.
After the 2016 presidential election, I couldn’t sleep. I needed Byrd’s soporific again. He was still waiting for me back in 1993. The YouTube traffic hadn’t budged; the most popular video still had just a few thousand views. Sometimes I drifted into an uneasy sleep. But this time, mostly I listened. And what I heard sounded very familiar.
“Rome was at the mercy of an ill-informed and passion-ridden mob, which was incapable of ruling itself, much less an empire,” he says of that late-Republic period. Like those Romans, many Americans in the early 1990s, he says, have become impatient with a government that lurches from one self-inflicted crisis to another. The Romans themselves yearned for a strong man. But Julius Caesar did not seize power on his own. The Senate handed it to him “deliberately, with forethought, with surrender, with intent to escape from responsibility.”
I finally understood that Byrd’s lectures weren’t just about securing money for another bridge in rural West Virginia. He may not have foreseen our current predicament, but he heard rolling thunder on the horizon. He collected his lectures into a book, but it is online where his singsong ruminations have found their place as a lullaby for troubled times.
For many Americans, the past year has brought the belated realization that, no matter how elegant and organic our system of “checks and balances” may sound, it is not a scientific fact. Institutions are people. They either honor their promises or they don’t. Office buildings, agency crests, and the Capitol Dome won’t save us.
“Power is not a substance,” Byrd says in one video, tapping his temple. “Power is an attitude in the minds of people.”
In 256 B.C., while the Roman republic still thrived, Marcus Atilius Regulus landed his consular army in Carthage. He was captured, tortured, and starved. After six years, the Carthaginians sent Regulus back to Rome to negotiate peace, on one condition: He had to return to captivity if the talks failed.
Two thousand years later, Robert C. Byrd donned a powder-gray suit and paced the Senate chamber and recounted that story. Regulus urged his countrymen to reject the peace offer. The Roman senators took his advice, then added that he need not keep his promise to the Carthaginians. Why return to imprisonment? His wife and children begged him to stay.
At this point in the story, the muffled voices in the gallery go silent. No one else is in the frame, but one imagines a few bored clerks glancing up from their papers. U.S. senators swear to uphold the Constitution, Byrd explains. “Six times I’ve stood there,” Byrd says, and here his voice cracks, “and taken that oath.” He jangles nervous coins in his pocket. “How serious do we regard this oath? Sometimes I wonder if we ever think of it again until the next six years have passed.”
We have retreated into ourselves, reforming old tribes and forging new ones. Institutions are under bombardment, and so we run for cover behind corporations, race, money, and guns. We abandon our rights and scramble for privileges. They are easier to lose, but also easier to obtain. Privileges don’t ask that we make considerations and sacrifices for people we will never meet. In a world of privileges, men and women and Republican congressmen who keep their word are not smart. They are, in the estimation of president and a growing number of Americans, losers.
Regulus kept his promise. His honor demanded it. He returned to his captors. The Carthaginians quickly learned that he had undermined them during the negotiations in Rome. They cut off Regulus’ eyelids and placed him in a spiked box facing the sun until he died.
As darkness closes in, and we lie awake mulling debts owed and whether to honor them, it turns out that Byrd’s grainy YouTube ghost might have a bedtime story worth hearing.