WASHINGTON -- Legend has it that Sen. Robert C. Byrd fiddled his way into public office.
As a young candidate for the state legislature, Byrd would ride around the West Virginia hills with his fiddle and bow, so charming crowds with tunes like "Cripple Creek" and "Rye Whiskey" that they stayed for his campaign message and have elected him ever since.
Five decades later, the fiddle is long retired. But Byrd still often calls the tune in the U.S. Senate.
His surprise announcement Friday that he would seek a quick end to the impeachment trial of President Clinton, because he considers it a futile and destructive exercise, marked a swift change in the dynamic on the Senate floor.
"His statement sort of takes the wind out of any of the hopes of the House managers," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said of the prosecutors whose case Byrd declared lost.
Byrd gave voice to what seemed evident to many in the Senate: that there was no foreseeable circumstance under which the required minimum of 67 senators would vote to convict Clinton and remove him from office.
But the message was important because it came from Byrd: a self-made, largely self-taught, fiercely independent man renowned for his love of the Senate, his reverence for the Constitution and his determined distance from the Clinton White House.
"He's greatly respected on both sides of the aisle because he's considered a protector of the institution clearly above partisanship," said Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat. "People might disagree with his views, but they don't question his motives."
Republicans could barely hide their disappointment. They had been counting on Byrd -- famous as a stickler for Senate rules -- to support them in their desire for a full-blown trial. They had cited him often as the unmatched expert on Senate procedure. Before the trial, Byrd had said that he could "vote either way" on whether to remove Clinton.
Now, he's proposing that the Senate vote tomorrow to dismiss the charges against Clinton -- without hearing from witnesses and without a final, formal vote on whether to convict or acquit the president.
"I was very surprised," said Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican. "I thought he would insist on a vote on the articles of impeachment."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was so irritated with Byrd's apparent change of heart that yesterday he dug out and gave to reporters a published remark from Byrd earlier this month in which Byrd said he did not think the trial could end without a formal vote on the articles of impeachment.
House prosecutors were even more unsettled by Byrd's decision to try to scuttle their trial. He had been at the top of their list of Democrats who might be persuaded to vote with them. Without Byrd, they might not get any Democrats. They need at least 12.
The prosecutors have launched a high-risk effort to compel Monica Lewinsky to undergo questioning about her affair with Clinton in hopes that the Senate will agree to let her testify.
Byrd angrily dismissed that move yesterday as a "desperate attempt by House managers to pre-empt the coming vote by the Senate on whether or not to depose witnesses. These tactics must end."
At 81, with 40 years in the Senate behind him, including stints as majority leader and president pro tem, the silver-maned Byrd always holds himself a bit apart from the rest.
He uses a back entrance to get on and off the Senate floor, avoiding the crush of reporters and lobbyists. He rarely gives interviews, almost never appears on television talk shows and speaks with contempt of the "hallway press conferences" that most of his colleagues have given during the impeachment trial.
In this instant media age, Byrd "doesn't pay much attention to TV," according to Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and longtime colleague. "He told me once he had only seen one movie."
Byrd calls himself a "country boy a rustic boob from West Virginia, that poverty-stricken state where hillbillies live in trucks." He couldn't afford to start college until 12 years after graduating from high school, and he earned his law degree after his first election to the Senate in 1958.
Apart from the Senate, Byrd's world has been largely one of books -- history books, law books, rule books and the Bible. He can quote from them all at great length -- and often has, while holding forth on the Senate floor.
His one vanity is richly colored satin vests, clearly visible beneath his suits. Yesterday he was sporting one with leopard spots.
Byrd has had a mixed relationship with Clinton, sometimes supporting him, sometimes fighting him bitterly. Their major battle came over the president's attempt to win a line-item veto of individual spending items in the budget, an issue Byrd finally won in court on the grounds that the line-item veto impinged on Congress' power of the purse.
Since the beginning of the Lewinsky scandal, Byrd has displayed some disdain for the president. He recently accused Clinton of "shameless arrogance" for the White House pep rally he held last month after the House voted to impeach him.
But for the man Lieberman called the "quintessential senator," Clinton's personal and political misdeeds are not important enough to justify the damage that Byrd says this highly partisan impeachment trial is doing to the Congress and the nation.
"For the good of the country," Byrd said yesterday, "this political jockeying has got to stop."
Pub Date: 1/24/99