Washington – Sen. Robert Byrd was very much a man of his turbulent era and a man of West Virginia, able to dramatically influence and shape policy for more than half a century while bestowing billions on his beloved state.
Byrd died at 3 a.m. Monday after a short hospitalization. He was 92.
On one level, the life of Byrd, who served longer than any U.S. senator in history, is a classic story of a successful American politician, raised in hardscrabble Appalachian coal country, a onetime butcher, gas station attendant and Ku Klux Klansman who rose to become one of Washington’s most powerful figures.
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He was the most nimble of politicians, a man who once filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for more than 14 hours, but later became a vocal, influential advocate for the underprivileged.
“He grew with the times, and made a fairly radical transformation,” said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
On another level, the fiery Democrat was, as Senate associate historian Don Ritchie put it, “a real Senate institution and an institutional man,” one who mastered the nuances of the Senate like no one of his era.
“I’d call him the Senate’s most dependable authority on the Constitution of the United States,” said former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., who served with Byrd from 1963 to 1981. “It’s almost as if he memorized the whole thing.”
However, his ability to master the Senate’s rules, as well as his largesse to his home state and often dour public demeanor, opened him to criticism that he was too ingrained in the clubby, insulated ways of official Washington.
“There’s a view of him that says he was a person most interested in narrow, distributive politics and less worried about the grand issues of his time,” said Andrew Taylor, congressional scholar at North Carolina State University. “He had a very contradictory Senate career.”
Byrd held more leadership positions than any senator, serving at various times as Senate Majority or Minority Leader, chairman of its Appropriations Committee, which makes key spending decisions, and finally President Pro Tempore, or third in line for the presidency.
He was born Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C., as Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died when he was 1, and he was raised by Titus and Vlurma Byrd, an uncle and aunt whom Byrd recalled were “very poor,” as Titus worked in a coal mine in southern West Virginia.
They renamed the boy Robert Carlyle Byrd. He graduated first in his high school class. He worked a series of menial jobs. Strapped for money, it took Byrd 16 years before he could start college, taking classes at Morris Harvey College in Charleston and Marshall College in Huntington.
He won his first public office in 1946, when he was elected to the state House of Delegates, and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952.
He enrolled in American University’s law school during his first year in Washington — and would graduate 10 years later &mash; setting a pattern that Ritchie said would persist throughout Byrd’s life.
“He would never stop learning,’ Ritchie said. He recalled how, during a tour of the congressional cemetery one day in the 1980s, Ritchie saw a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” in the back of Byrd’s car.
“I never got a chance to read it growing up,” Ritchie recalled Byrd saying.
Byrd, though, was also ambitious, and in his early years that meant an affiliation he later would regret.
He explained in his 2005 autobiography how he helped organize a local Klan chapter, saying it seemed logical because local leaders were members and they were not preaching violence; it seemed more like a social club.
Byrd wrote that he “displayed very bad judgment, due to immaturity and a lack of seasoned reasoning. At the age of 24, I still did not realize what I was really getting into, and my lack of sophistication at the time is painfully apparent.”
Once in Washington, he was known as a loyal Southern voice on civil rights, and when the Senate considered the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, Byrd spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to derail the bill. Three years later, he opposed the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first black nominated to the Supreme Court.
The times and Byrd were changing, however, and by the late 1960s he was becoming known more as someone with a knack for legislating. In 1971, he engineered a stunning upset of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to become the Senate majority whip, or second-ranking Democrat, and six years later became majority leader.
He won with his passion for detail _ critics said he was short on vision _ as he won over his fellow senators by doing personal and legislative favors they remembered.
Vice President Joe Biden recalled how, after he’d just been elected to the Senate from Delaware in 1972 and his wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident a few weeks later, Byrd sat quietly in the back of the funeral service after waiting two hours in the rain to get in.
“He didn’t even know me,” Biden recalled. “I was just a young kid.” After he took office, Byrd’s staff would keep Biden closely informed of the Senate schedule so he could figure out which train to catch to go home to Wilmington each night.
Byrd made his mark in more public ways, as a bridge between the slow Senate ways of doing business and the 21st Century. He pushed to bring television cameras into the Senate in 1986, and would often use slow days to give lengthy speeches on the history of the institution.
At the same time, he wrote a four-volume history of the Senate, rarely held televised press conferences and frowned on senators he caught using BlackBerrys on the Senate floor.
He helped shepherd through Congress the notable legislation of the day: The 1978 Panama Canal treaty and the 1986 tax system overhaul, among others.
Scholars often decry his lack of bold initiatives, however.
“His chief strategy was to acquire power. He doesn’t have a good legislative monument anyone would recognize,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
Except this: “He was a one-man stimulus program for the state of West Virginia,” Baker said.
Byrd stepped down from his leadership post in 1989, among some grumbling from newer members that he wasn’t offering an appealing public message or image, to become Appropriations chairman.
He vowed to bring a billion dollars in federal funding to his state in five years. Accounts say he did it in three, and kept bringing more money, and critics haven’t let him forget it. Citizens Against Government Waste found that in 2008 alone, Byrd added $386 million in projects for the state.
Others argue that that was his job. Historically, Senate Appropriations chairmen have come from poorer or less populous states, such as John Stennis of Mississippi; more recently, Ted Stevens of Alaska; and currently, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
In recent years, Byrd has taken on a senior statesman role, a conscience of sorts.
While Democratic Senate leaders backed giving President George W. Bush broad authority to invade Iraq in 2002, Byrd balked. He tried to launch a filibuster, fell short, and before the final vote, warned, “This is the Tonkin Gulf resolution all over again,” a reference to the authority given President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to wage war in Southeast Asia, a measure that Byrd had supported.
This time, he pleaded, “Let us stop, look and listen. Let us not give this president or any president unchecked power. Remember the Constitution.”
Three days after the invasion in 2003, Byrd was angry.
“I weep for my country,” he said. “No more is the image of America one of strong yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.”
Byrd passed the late Strom Thurmond on June 11, 2006, as the nation’s longest serving senator, but his fire seemed to be ebbing. His high school sweetheart, Erma Ora, whom he’d married 69 years earlier, died earlier that year.
In January, Byrd, under pressure from fellow Democrats, stepped down from his coveted committee chairmanship.
He knew where he stood, as he always had. Perhaps his political coda came in May 2008, when the former Klansman endorsed the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, who’d become the nation’s first African-American president.
“Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support,” Byrd said.