- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2010

A master of Senate procedure and federal spending, Sen. Robert C. Byrd died Monday at 92 after the longest congressional career in American history - and it’s easy to see the mark he left on his beloved home state of West Virginia.

There’s the Byrd Biomedical Research Center, the Byrd Higher Education Center, the Byrd Center for Educational Technologies and the Byrd Eastern Panhandle Health Professions Center - and those are just the buildings named after his wife, Erma.

For Mr. Byrd himself, the list of projects for the home folks runs into the dozens and dozens, many of them projects for which he secured taxpayer funding. It includes: two federal courthouses and a prison, the visitors center at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, a scholarship, hospitals and clinics, a high school in Clarksburg, a 720-foot automobile bridge over the Ohio River, the Robert C. Byrd Expressway, the Robert C. Byrd Freeway, the Robert C. Byrd Highway and Robert C. Byrd Drive.

Mr. Byrd was more than West Virginia’s link to the federal Treasury during his nearly six decades in Washington. He wrote the book on the history of the Senate, and wrote or revised many of its procedures. He was a gifted rhetorician whose command of the classics made history lessons out of his floor speeches. And he was the premier guardian of the legislative branch’s constitutional primacy in the American system of government.

“He was a Member of this nation’s Congress for more than a quarter of the time it has existed, and longer than a quarter of today’s sitting senators and the president of the United States have been alive,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “A dozen men called the Oval Office his own while Sen. Byrd called the Capitol building his office - and he would be the first to remind you that those two branches are equal in the eyes of the Constitution.”

Mr. Byrd died at 3 a.m. at Inova Fairfax Hospital, a spokesman said. He was admitted last week for what doctors thought was heat exhaustion and dehydration, but doctors said other conditions developed and his office announced Sunday that he was “seriously ill.”

On Monday, Mr. Byrd’s Senate desk, which occupies a prime position on the center aisle, was draped in black, and a vase of white roses sat atop it.

As senior senator from the party holding the majority, Mr. Byrd had been president pro tempore, putting him in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and speaker of the House. The Senate elected a new president pro tem, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, and swore him in to begin business Monday afternoon.

But most of the day’s work was remembering Mr. Byrd.

“He not only wrote the book on it, he was a living repository of its rules, its customs and its prerogatives,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “It would be a mistake to think that Senator Byrd became synonymous with the Senate simply because he served in it longer than anybody else. Rather, it was a fitting coincidence that a man who cherished and knew this place so well would become its longest serving member.”

During his six years in the House and more than 50 in the Senate, Mr. Byrd took part in the bitter fights over civil rights, first as an opponent and later a supporter, and fought the key battles over budgets and spending that dominated much of the 1980s and 1990s. He saw fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and in the last decade had been one of the key voices against the war in Iraq.

For most of that time, until his frailty confined him to a wheelchair and he began to miss votes regularly, Mr. Byrd was a dominant figure in the Senate, policing its institutional prerogatives and procedures against encroachments large and small, even down to the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in the Senate chamber. At one time, a glare from the senator in his seat, right on the aisle, was enough to silence the chamber.

But as much as anything, Mr. Byrd will be remembered for his mastery of Congress’ power of the purse, and he reveled in being called the “pork king.”

As the longtime top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, he secured more than $3 billion in earmarked spending for West Virginia, taxpayer watchdogs estimate. He did not relinquish that post until the beginning of the current Congress.

He cast more than 18,600 votes during his time in the Senate, 2,000 more than anyone else in history.

Last year, he helped Democrats pass President Obama’s health care bill, repeatedly providing the crucial 60th vote during a grueling schedule that ran right up until Christmas Eve. He cast his final vote June 17.

Mr. Byrd, was born in North Carolina in 1917 and was christened Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died a year later in the flu pandemic that swept the globe, and he was sent to be raised by an aunt and uncle, who named him Robert Carlyle Byrd.

In 1937, he married Erma Ora James, his high school sweetheart, whom he would regularly cite as his strength for the 68 years of their marriage. Her death in 2006 seemed to mark a turning point in the senator’s health, too.

He served terms in both houses of the West Virginia Legislature before being elected to Congress in 1952.

Sen. Byrd came from humble beginnings in the Southern coalfields, was raised by hardworking West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America. But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who served with Mr. Byrd in the Senate for the past 25 years.

In what he later called the biggest mistake of his life, Mr. Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1942.

“It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation,” Mr. Byrd wrote in his 2005 memoir, “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.”

But the KKK membership and other civil rights matters, including his participation in a filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, gave critics an easy target to criticize him. He is the only senator to have voted against confirmations of both Justice Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas.

In 2001, he had to apologize after he gave an interview in which he discussed race relations and used the phrase “white niggers.”

One gauge of his role in the Senate is to look at how many of its rules he wrote or refined. And as recently as the past few months Mr. Byrd, looking ever more frail, argued to the Senate Rules Committee against undoing the protections the minority party has in the upper chamber, such as the filibuster.

While some senators with less seniority call for the filibuster rules to be altered, Mr. Byrd said that’s an unwise move.

“I know what it is to be majority leader, and wake up on a Wednesday morning in November, and find yourself a minority leader,” Mr. Byrd told the committee last month.

That’s exactly what happened in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory ushered in a Republican majority and Mr. Byrd, who was the Senate Democrats’ leader, spent the next six years leading them in the minority. He regained the majority leader’s post in 1987, after Democrats recaptured control of the chamber.

His rhetorical skills were legendary, rivaling those of his friend and fellow long-serving senator, Edward M. Kennedy, who passed away last year. He peppered his floor speeches with references to the Roman Senate or classic literature. Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” was a favorite source for him.

But often he would also turn his considerable talent toward more gentle subjects, including regularly delivering a speech commemorating Mother’s Day.

“When Senator Byrd speaks, we actually come out of the cloakroom and our offices and listen, enthralled, to the history that he knows, that he quotes from memory,” former Sen. Trent Lott said in introducing Mr. Byrd at a lecture in the 1990s. “He has spoken of great historic events and has quoted from the Bible. And yet he has spoken personally, humanly, about the wonders of being a father and a grandfather in such a way that has brought tears to my eyes.”

At one point in 2007, a West Virginia newspaper ran an article that examined his ever-shakier signature as a sign of his deteriorating health.

Mr. Byrd answered in his usual way: He took to the Senate floor and delivered a speech.

“We get white hair. We get wrinkles. We move more slowly. We worry more about falling down because we don’t bounce up the way we used to. Our brains are still sharp, but our tongues are slower. We have learned, sometimes the hard way, to think before we speak. I hope, however, that what we have to say is worth the wait,” he said.

“My only adversity is age. It is not a bar to my usefulness as a senator. I still look out for West Virginia. I still zealously guard the welfare of this nation and its Constitution. I still work, every day, to move the business of this nation forward, to end this reckless adventure in Iraq, and to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution against those who would reshape it to suit partisan agenda. And I will continue to do this work until this old body gives out. Just don’t expect that to be any time soon.”

c This story is based in part on reporting previously done by Christina Bellantoni when she worked for The Washington Times. She is now a senior reporter for Talking Points Memo.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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