Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving legislator in the history of the United States Senate, died Monday at age 92. Byrd came to the Senate from West Virginia in January, 1959, after serving three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Over a Senate career that spanned nine terms, he attained an unparalleled reputation as a master of Senate procedure, the body’s unofficial historian, and the unchallenged keeper of the Senate’s institutions and traditions.
It is almost impossible to overstate Byrd’s importance in the Senate, where he served for nearly a quarter of its entire history. He held nearly every top leadership post in the Senate, including Majority Leader, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and President Pro Tempore, a ceremonial position that also put Byrd third in the line of presidential succession at the time of his death.
I first started covering the Senate and Byrd in 1997. By then Byrd’s influence was already descendent. He was already eight years beyond the pinnacle of Democratic Leader. But he was still firmly in control of the Appropriations Committee.
I remember the first time I approached Byrd for an interview. I’m not sure what year it was, but I would guess 2001 or 2002. I was working on a piece on how senators master the arcane rules of the body. I approached him outside the ornate ‘President’s Room’ as he left the Senate floor after a vote. “Senator Byrd, I was hoping to talk to you about how Senators use the rules to their advantage, some of your best tactical moves, maybe some musings on Lyndon Johnson when he was Majority Leader,” I said.
Byrd stopped, leaning on his two crutches he used to get around, even then. “Young man, I am not a history book. But I would be happy to put it on my schedule.” That was the courtly yet stern brush-off. I eventually got my interview, though it was brief and Byrd was circumspect. I realized later that my simplistic questions on tactics were hardly worth putting to the man some see as the “Jedi knight” of Senate maneuvering.
I also realized why Byrd was annoyed by my question about Lyndon Johnson’s style. Johnson’s Senate masterstroke is widely considered his passage of the Civil Rights Act over the objections and filibusters of 20 Southern Democrats. Byrd had been one of them.
Byrd may have objected to being thought by a green reporter as a history reference. But I had good reason to ask him. He is also the author of a four-volume history of the Senate, widely considered one of the most detailed and authoritative works on the body.
Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., in North Wilkesboro, NC, on November 20, 1917. Relatives renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd, Jr., when his mother died a year after his birth.
He often mentioned his hardscrabble upbringing among the poor coal miners of West Virginia. Byrd sometimes invoked his experience growing up in a home with a dirt floor when defending polices or government spending targeted to the poor.
Parts of his adult life would eventually haunt his political career. Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan in his twenties, became an organizer for the group in West Virginia, and remained a member for years. He apologized for his membership in the racist organization in a 2005 memoir, in which he wrote that he had been “sorely afflicted with tunnel vision – a jejune and immature outlook – seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.”
Byrd once described his Klan membership as “an albatross around my neck,” according to The Washington Post.
Byrd became known as a talented tactician during his years as the Senate Democratic leader, showing a mastery of Senate procedure that often frustrated and stymied his political appointments. He was fond of rhetorical flourishes that invoked the Constitution, in speeches that often featured Byrd waving aloft the copy of the Constitution he carried in his coat pocket.
Byrd’s informal rulings on Senate tactics and his opinions on strategy carried enormous weight with fellow legislators, even with 30-year Senate veterans over whom he still held seniority. His denouncement of impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton in 1999 were widely credited with assuring Clinton’s acquittal in a Senate trial.
Byrd was also known to be a harsh critic of his foes, especially those he suspected of Constitutional transgressions or moral shortcoming. He sometimes compared President George W. Bush to the tyrants and Caesars of ancient Rome, especially when voicing opposition to the war in Iraq.
Byrd was also a renowned dog-lover. In what has probably become his best-known Senate speech, Byrd in 2007 denounced NFL player Michael Vick’s training of fighting dogs as “barbaric”. Vick was later convicted and sentenced to prison for the crime.
In 2004, Byrd released “Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency” a book in which he railed against the Bush White House and what he saw as a rush to war in Iraq based on false assertions of danger there.
The previous year, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Byrd issued the following warning during a speech on the Senate floor: “This administration has directed all of the anger, fear, and grief which emerged from the ashes of the Twin Towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war.”
Byrd was also critical of the press around that time, sometimes to their faces. Once during the height of the Iraq War, Byrd slowly passed through a group of reporters on his way to the Senate floor. I remember him stopping, turning toward us and wagging his finger. “The Fourth Estate. The Fourth Estate! Defenders of liberty!” he shouted as he shot his index finger into the air. “Defend it,” he said, as he looked at each of us. “Defend it.”
Byrd didn’t elaborate, but I took him to be criticizing the press for not doing more to uncover holes in the Bush Administration’s justification for war and for asking too few critical questions.
In 2008 Byrd endorsed the candidacy of Barack Obama, giving the Illinois senator much-needed credibility among Democratic moderates and rural voters.
Robert Byrd’s wife, Erma Ora Byrd (nee James) died in 2007, a year and a month short of the couple’s 70th wedding anniversary.