20 Questions with Steve Kettmann

Last week, Steve Kettmann, who co-wrote the recently released Letter to a New President with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), traveled to Washington to visit his old friend.

The Berlin-based writer came to see the man who consumed much of his thoughts last year, as the senator spent some 30 hours sharing details of his life.

Kettmann took note of how suntanned Byrd was and recalled a time last year when he visited Byrd to gather notes for the book. Byrd was suntanned then, too, but had a severely bloodshot eye from holding a contest with his grandchildren to see who could hold their breath underwater the longest.

Byrd won.

This year, the 90-year-old senator again spent time with his grandchildren at the swimming pool, but didn’t challenge them to an underwater contest.

Kettmann previously wrote What a Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators and Other Wild Animals with Terry McAuliffe. During that time, Kettmann moved into McAuliffe’s home.

How much time did you spend with Sen. Byrd to prepare for the writing of the book?
I actually went through my records, and I met with Sen. Byrd 14 times over the course of last year.

Where did you meet with him?
Always here, in his office.

How long was each visit?
The normal period was two hours. I think I can say he enjoyed our sessions — he’d ask me to stay longer. There were a couple of times I’d have to say, “I have my train ticket and I have to go.” I felt terrible. He wanted to talk more.

Did you two hit it off immediately?
Yeah. A novelist friend of mine had been in talks with Byrd about writing a biography. He warned me that I shouldn’t be offended because when you meet the senator he likes to take his time sizing people up, he’s very non-committal. So I get there and literally within 17 minutes the senator was saying, “Let’s work together, I like you.”

That must have felt good.
It did. He’s really the last of a breed. This is a man who was still pursuing his studies while in office. He ferociously devoted himself to reading.

What one thing stands out in terms of what you learned about him?
To him, history is a living, breathing presence in his life that he consults often, like a good friend that is always at his side.

Did he elaborate on the fact that his mother kissed him only once in his life?
That was one of the few things I came back to a couple of times, asking him, “Is that really true?” The one time his mother kissed him, Byrd told me, came under the following circumstances:

“That was when I asked her to, rather than giving me a whipping. I said, ‘Kiss me.’ And she did.”

You have to remember the setting. This was Depression-era West Virginia. He would read by a gas lamp. His mother was not his biological mother. He was raised by two people who were not his real parents.

Who were they?
When Byrd was 1 year old, his mother died, but not before leaving word that she wanted young Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. [Byrd’s birth name] to be raised by an aunt and uncle, Vlurma and Titus Byrd. They gave him the name Robert Carlyle Byrd.

They were not his birth parents, but to him they were mother and father — they raised him. As for his natural father, Cornelius Sale, he was said to be a great lover of poetry, and would read poetry to himself in the fields.
What do you think is the most unique or unusual thing about Sen. Byrd?
I think it is how passionate a student of history he has been his whole life. I don’t think there will ever be another U.S. senator like him again in that respect.

He was a welder during World War I. He learned the art of being a butcher from a book. He comes from such a humble background.

Was there anything that surprised you about him?
I was unprepared for how much he enjoyed talking to me. If he was eating something, he was very concerned for me [and what I was eating]. We would eat cheese sandwiches together. He always wanted ice cream for dessert but he wanted you to join him. He had courtly manners that I was charmed by.

Tell me about Erma, his late wife.
When it came time to dedicate the book, I knew he’d want to dedicate it to Erma because she meant everything to him. He talks about the three pinnacles of his life: Love of Erma, love of God and love of country.

What about the dogs? Did they sit in on the meetings?
The dogs were often there. The senator just loves the dogs, playing with them or calling to them. They were really sweet.

Has he spoken to you about his health?
He used to talk from time to time about how lucky he was that his health was good, that he felt good and blessed that his health had remained strong. I should add to that I know he has been subsequently hospitalized with what I believe are relatively minor problems. I know he was on antibiotics.

The senator is 90. Did he talk about age?
He talked about age in the sense of what it’s like to look back through so many decades of memories. He has known 11 presidents personally. He knew Harry Truman personally. He knew Richard Nixon. Nixon wanted to put him on the Supreme Court.

Did he ever get angry?
He did. Byrd was very strong against the Iraq war. He talked about the phrase “sleepwalking through history.” He would get very angry [about the Bush administration].

What is something that few people know about him?
He says in the book that he has a child’s faith in God. To some, it might sound rhetorical, but I think he means that and I think I saw that. It comes first, this idea of building a moral framework for your life, just how deeply instilled it was by his parents. Being 90, he’s obviously of a different generation and I don’t think people talk about faith that way anymore with a kind of modesty, but a real seriousness.  

Did he talk about being in the Ku Klux Klan?
He has apologized for being in the KKK more than half a century ago. We talked about it, but as [with] everything we talked about, the goal was lessons learned. He writes that that mistake has been with him his whole life as a millstone around his neck. He wasn’t reluctant to talk about it. He was open, but it couldn’t have been easy.

Was there anything he wouldn’t discuss?
I cannot recall him ever not wanting to discuss anything. There may have been one or two times I was interested in him talking about Erma but he wouldn’t because he’d get too emotional.

Did he cry?
I don’t ever remember him crying, but the emotion was heavy in the room and his eyes got red.

During the course of interviewing him, did Sen. Byrd ever show up in your dreams?
I know I had dreams relating to the book. He definitely made an appearance in one or two of my dreams. He probably said, “Fie on the” — it’s a Byrdism. I would have trouble translating it into contemporary English. It’s like in Shakespeare.

You also wrote a book with Terry McAuliffe released in early 2007 called What a Party!
What was that like?

It was an extreme challenge to work with Terry McAuliffe. I basically moved into his house for more than two months and we pulled 10 all-nighters. I am sure that Terry and I will eventually do another book together. He has had a fairly interesting experience since we last worked together.

Can you even compare it to your experience with Sen. Byrd?
With Sen. Byrd the challenge was more to understand the importance of what he said and didn’t say. He could often be very eloquent by choosing not to make a certain point.

Was it sad in any way to finish your time with Sen. Byrd?
Yes. In fact, every time I see him now it’s a little sad for me because you never know how many times you’ll see him. But I feel very lucky to have had so many great conversations with a man with his experiences. I have no idea why I am so lucky to have had that experience.

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