Robert Byrd, Requiescat In Pace
Kristina Peterson of the Dow Jones Newswires writes for the Wall Street Journal this synopsis of Robert Byrd’s life:
Robert Byrd, the 92-year-old West Virginia Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate for 51 years, died Monday.
A spokesman for the family, Jesse Jacobs, said Mr. Byrd died peacefully at about 3 a.m. at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va. His health had been failing for several years.
A master of Senate procedures and orator whose Stentorian tones aimed to evoke the roots of the republic (if not Rome), Mr. Byrd served longer, voted more frequently, and probably used the arcane Senate rules to more effect any previous denizen of the nation’s senior legislative house.
Mr. Byrd inhabited numerous roles in a life that took him from a childhood in the coalfields of West Virginia to Senate Majority Leader. In his early years, he was a gas station attendant, a welder, and self-taught butcher, then a West Virginia state legislator.
After he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1952, his political positions veered widely between the now almost extinct Southern conservative Democrats of mid-century to that of the more conventional liberal of today. But his reputation never rested on ideology, but rather on his persuasiveness, his sheer effort, and, occasionally, his willingness to filibuster.
Most salient were the twin images of a Washington stalwart.
First was the self-appointed champion of the Constitution, brandishing his breast-pocket copy of the government’s foundational document on the Senate floor while inveighing against usurpation of the Senate’s powers by the Executive branch.
Second was the crafty legislative pro with one hand in the pork barrel, the Democratic majority leader and Appropriations committee chair who managed to slip into legislation so many programs benefiting his state that more than 30 Federally-funded buildings were named after him.
A Senator starting in 1959, Mr. Byrd at first voted the conservative southern Democratic line. He strongly opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He likened antipoverty measures to rent supplements, and voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that set the stage for U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
Yet by the late 1970s, when he was first named Senate Majority Leader, the one-time kleagle in the Ku Klux Klan had moderated his position on social issues to the point where he favored the Equal Rights Amendment.
When Mr. Byrd voted against measures authorizing both the Gulf War in 1990 and the invasion of Iraq in 2002, it was on the grounds that the Senate was giving up its constitutional power to declare war. In later years, he called his Gulf of Tonkin vote a “mistake” and a “sin.”
Raised by impoverished relatives after his mother died in the 1917 global flu pandemic, Mr. Byrd worked at blue-collar jobs before being elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1947. His talents as an orator had emerged even earlier as he drew crowds as a lay Baptist preacher. He liked to entertain the crowds who came to see him campaign by playing bluegrass numbers like “Cripple Creek” on his fiddle.
Mr. Byrd was wildly popular in West Virginia, but his membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s became a campaign issue when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952. He managed to get elected after explaining away his “mistake of youth.”
Lack of education rankled him, and he was throughout life an avid autodidact. He read entire dictionaries, the classics, and was fond of quoting Latin poets on the Senate floor.
“His knowledge more closely reflects that of a senator from the 19th century than one from the 20th or 21st,” Don Ritchie, an associate Senate historian once said. “He keeps reminding them that there are reasons why we do things the way we do.” [The American Prospect 2002]
As a Congressman, Mr. Byrd began taking law classes, but had trouble balancing his responsibilities. “Having to face re-election every two years when I was in the House significantly delayed my law studies,” Mr. Byrd wrote in his autobiography. Being a Senator gave him more free time.
In 1963, after a decade of study, he became the only U.S. Senator on record to earn a law degree while in office. President John F. Kennedy conferred the degree on Mr. Byrd during graduation ceremonies at American University.
Mr. Byrd’s commitment to voter service began early, perhaps later to morphing into his pork-barrel reputation.
“No item beneficial to West Virginia was too large or too small for me to give my close attention to,” Byrd wrote in his autobiography. He supported repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act and other labor-friendly legislation that would benefit his coal-mining constituents.
Residents of West Virginia rarely wavered in their support. In 1970, Byrd became the first politician to ever carry all of the state’s 55 counties in an election.
Richard Brisbin, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University, said polls showed Mr. Byrd was “clearly the most popular and well known and well-respected figure in the state.”
Mr. Byrd fostered a reputation for legislative persistence and knowledge of Senate rules. In a closely fought 1971 race, he beat Sen. Edward Kennedy for the position of Majority Whip. He became Majority Leader in 1977, and helped push through President Carter’s energy package, overcoming a two-week filibuster over gas-price regulations.
Mr. Byrd frankly acknowledged his love of the Senate’s intricate guidelines.
“Nobody has ever used the rules of the Senate more than I have,” he once said. In 1960 he set a record for the longest filibuster with a speech that stretched 21 hours and 8 minutes and dwelled at length on one of his favorite foods, the raisin.
Mr. Byrd was an important player during the run-up to the planned impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1998. Warning that the Senate was teetering on the brink of “the black pit of partisan self-indulgence,” Mr. Byrd helped broker an agreement that led to the President’s censure.
As impeachment loomed for President Richard Nixon during the Watergate affair in 1974, Mr. Byrd opposed resignation on the grounds that “the question of guilt or innocence would never be fully resolved.” With an eye as ever toward constitutional integrity, Mr. Byrd announced on the Senate floor: “This would change our system from one of fixed tenure to one in which a president would remain in office only by popular approval.”
President Nixon resigned anyway.
During the past decade, Mr. Byrd was among the most strident of the Bush administration’s critics, repeatedly warning the president to read the Constitution or face impeachment himself.
Shortly after the 2008 election, facing rumblings over his age in the face of an economic crisis, Mr. Byrd announced he was stepping down after a decade as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. From that post, he had enabled his home state to dramatically build up its infrastructure and services, adding highways, bridges, health centers, scholarships and funding for higher education. His critics had crowned him “King of Pork,” but at home the state legislator had dubbed him “West Virginian of the Twentieth Century.”
“West Virginia has always had four friends,” Mr. Byrd said after winning re-election in November 2000. “God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd.”