Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in history, known for his rhetorical flourish, his devotion to his home state of West Virginia and his fierce defense of the legislative branch’s constitutional primacy in American government, died Monday morning at the age of 92.
A spokesman for his Senate office said Mr. Byrd died at 3 a.m. at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He had been admitted last week for what doctors thought was het exhaustion and dehydration, but doctors said other conditions developed and his office announced Sunday he was “seriously ill.”
“We will remember him for his fighter’s spirit, his abiding faith, and for the many times he recalled the Senate to its purposes. Generations of Americans will read the masterful history of the Senate he leaves behind, and they will also read about the remarkable life of Robert Carlyle Byrd,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
During his nearly six decades in Congress, including years six 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 wheel chair 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.
As the long-time top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, a post he only relinquished at the beginning of this Congress, taxpayer watchdogs estimate he secured more than $3 billion in earmarked spending for West Virginia — probably an all-time record.
As of this January he had cast 18,611 votes in the Senate, or 2,000 more than anyone else in history.
Despite his legendary attachment to West Virginia, Mr. Byrd was actually born in North Carolina and his given name was Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. But his mother died in the 1918 global flu pandemic and his father dispersed the family among his mother’s relatives.
He was raised in West Virginia by an aunt and uncle, and re-christened Robert Carlyle Byrd.
Mr. Byrd’s health declined more rapidly following the March 2006 death of his wife, Erma. They were married 68 years and had been childhood sweethearts.
They were barely out of Mark Twain High School — where he was valedictorian — when they got married in 1937, holding the wedding ceremony after he got off work from the local butcher shop in Crab Orchard, W.Va.
They were too poor for a honeymoon, so they celebrated at a Saturday night square dance before the new groom returned to the meat counter at a coal mining camp for work Monday morning.
Mrs. Byrd would drive him to school while he did homework, a routine they settled into for the decade it took him to earn the law degree from American University night classes. Mr. Byrd earned a college diploma from Marshall University at the age of 77.
“Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working 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 last 25 years.
Mr. Byrd said he deeply regretted participating in a filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and believed joining the Ku Klux Klan when he was 24 in 1942 was his life’s greatest mistake, acknowledging its stain on his legacy.
“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.”
One gauge of his role in the Senate is to look at how many of its rules he wrote or refined, including the so-called Byrd Rule in the budget process, which complicated Democrats’ efforts this year to pass a health care bill.
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.
That’s exactly what happened in 1980, when President Reagan’s victory ushered in a Republican majority and Mr. Byrd, who was 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.
And as the longest-serving Democratic senator Mr. Byrd was president pro tem of the Senate for more than 10 years, putting him in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and the speaker of the House.
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 Peloponnedian 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,” 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 anytime soon.”