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Historian and fiddle player, the West Virginia Democrat was the longest-serving U.S. senator
Three decades ago, Saturday mornings were taken up with Robert C. Byrd's news conferences. They were a bit bizarre, sprinkled with reporters from publications you'd never heard of—one regular was from a Turkish news agency—and the socially awkward Senate Majority Leader would wander into strange asides. Some of us supposedly more urbane mainstream reporters were dismissive: What self-respecting politician held Saturday sessions? It gradually dawned on us that he often was setting the agenda for the Sunday television interview shows and the week ahead, framing issues more effectively than the White House.
It was easy to underestimate Robert Carlyle Byrd, who died on June 28 at age 92. He was fodder for late-night comedians and the blogosphere—pompous, the king of pork, a fiddler with no social life outside the Senate. In a business that places a premium on collegiality and conviviality, Byrd had no talent for either. Few senators considered him a friend; most knew he had their back. What Byrd, elected to the House in 1952 and to the Senate six years later, lacked in sophistication and polish he made up for in shrewdness and persistence.
He was a simple man but not without contradictions. Too poor to attend college, he spent his first 10 years in Congress at night law school and was handed his degree from American University in 1963 by the commencement speaker: President John F. Kennedy. He joined the Ku Klux Klan as a young man and became a hero to progressives in his final years.
He leaves a void that, in an age that caters to the passions of the moment and the 24-7 news cycle, isn't likely to be filled. Byrd was the "ultimate institutionalist," says Andrew Taylor, a scholar at North Carolina State University. "He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Senate, which is run more by tradition and convention than the heavily rule-bound House. He was the greatest advocate for the institution on the balance of power, where the executive has had the upper hand for most of the last 80 years."
No lawmaker delivered more bacon for his home state—bridges, dams, highways, many bearing the name Robert C. Byrd; he believed the federal government had a responsibility to take care of a poor state like West Virginia. He also was the most passionate defender of the Senate's prerogatives. This transcended partisanship. He fought Bill Clinton's line-item veto with the same vehemence that he opposed George W. Bush's decision to wage war in Iraq. (He called that antiwar vote the best of the 19,000 he cast.)
In 1971 he upset the incumbent Democratic whip, Edward M. Kennedy. That bitter relationship transformed into a close friendship. Kennedy sent Byrd roses—one for each of his years—on every birthday. When Kennedy died last year, the family escorted his body past the Senate. There was a delay, but as the entourage passed, sitting on the front steps of the Senate in his wheelchair, waiting for three hours in 90-degree temperatures, was 91-year-old Robert C. Byrd.
Grew up poor in hollows of West Virginia
Joining the Ku Klux Klan as a young man
Voting against the Iraq war in 2002