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Robert Byrd, Longest-Serving U.S. Senator, Dies

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) asks a question at a Senate hearing in May. Byrd, 92, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, died Monday.
Alex Wong
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) asks a question at a Senate hearing in May. Byrd, 92, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, died Monday.

Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history and an ardent defender of the chamber's traditions, died Monday. He was 92.

Timeline: Robert C. Byrd

Nov. 20, 1917: Born in North Wilkesboro, N.C. His mother dies a year later.

1920: Moves to West Virginia.

1934: Graduates as valedictorian from Mark Twain High School.

1937: Marries Erma Ora James. They will have two daughters, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore.

1942: Joins the Ku Klux Klan.

1946: Elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates.

1950: Elected to the West Virginia Senate.

1952: Elected to the United States House of Representatives. While running, announces that he left the KKK.

1958: Elected to the United States Senate.

1963: Graduates cum laude from American University's Washington College of Law.

1964: Filibusters against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The bill passes overwhelmingly.)

1967: Elected secretary of Senate Democratic Conference (re-elected in 1969).

1969: Starts the Robert C. Byrd Scholastic Recognition Award, in which the valedictorian at each West Virginia public and private high school receives a savings bond.

1971: Becomes Senate Majority Whip (re-elected in 1973 and 1975).

1977: Elected Senate Majority Leader.

1981: Elected Senate Minority Leader.

1985: Instrumental in establishing the nation's only merit-based scholarship program funded through the U.S. Department of Education.

1989: Elected chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

1994: Awarded B.A. in political science from Marshall University.

October 2002: Tries but fails to gather support for a filibuster against the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq.

March 25, 2006: Wife dies after battling a long illness.

June 11, 2006: Becomes the longest-serving senator in U.S. history.

June 21, 2007: Casts his 18,000th vote.

July 19, 2007: Gives a 25-minute passionate speech in the Senate against dogfighting, in response to the indictment of football player Michael Vick.

Byrd was best known for his ardent defense of both the U.S. Constitution his love of Senate history. He was also a man who fought the 1964 Civil Rights Act — to his later regret — but who took great pride in his fight against authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

He was not only the author of an award-winning four-volume history of the Senate; he was also, from the time he joined the chamber in January 1959, a major player in much of that history. He was a two-time majority leader and was chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.


In a 2006 interview the day he became the longest-serving senator, Byrd proudly declared that there were four things his fellow West Virginians believed in: "God almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter's Little Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd — not necessarily in that order."

More than three dozen places in West Virginia bear Byrd's name. Nearly all were built with the hundreds of millions of federal dollars Byrd steered to his home state as the longtime chairman of the appropriations panel, which he called "the greatest committee."

"I'm going to do everything I can for the people of West Virginia. That's my duty! You can call it pork, if you want to, but that's all right. I know what my duty is. My duty is to my people," Byrd said.

'I Love This Senate'

Byrd also saw it as his duty to uphold the Senate's traditions. Unlike his more informal colleagues, he would always take his seat in the Senate to vote. On Feb. 26, 2009, he was one of only two Democrats to vote against giving the District of Columbia a voting seat in the House, questioning the bill's constitutionality. He also opposed the nomination of Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary, saying of Geithner's tax lapses: "Had he not been nominated for Treasury secretary, it's doubtful that he would have ever paid these taxes."


On June 21, 2007, Byrd cast his 18,000th vote.

"I love this Senate; I love it dearly. I love the Senate for its rules; I love the Senate for its precedents; I love the Senate for the difference that it can make in peoples' lives," Byrd said.

And many of Byrd's colleagues loved him.

"I have served in public office a long time, but no one can dispute the fact, as far as I'm concerned, that Robert Byrd is a giant," said Majority Leader Harry Reid. "I love Robert Byrd. He is a person who sets a standard for all of us."

Once TV coverage of the Senate began in the 1980s, Byrd delivered a celebrated series of lectures on the Roman Senate. His thesis was that the Roman Empire fell because its executive branch snatched power away from the legislative branch. In 2004, he warned his colleagues that the same fate could befall the United States.

"Why so deferential to presidents? Under the Constitution, we have three separate but equal branches of government," Byrd said. "How many of us know that? How many of us know that the executive branch is but the equal of the legislative branch, not above it?"

As he often would, Byrd then pulled out the well-worn copy of the Constitution that he always carried in his breast pocket.

"This Constitution impacts your life," Byrd said. "Every day that you are here on this planet, this Constitution has a bearing on it."

And the Constitution, Byrd said, empowers Congress — not the president — to declare war. In October 2002, Byrd failed to muster enough support to filibuster the resolution authorizing President Bush to make the call on using force against Iraq. Byrd warned senators that they were making, as he put it, "one horrible mistake."

"The president is hoping to secure power under the Constitution that no president has ever claimed before, never," Byrd said. "The Bush administration wants (the) president to have the power to launch this nation into war — without provocation and without clear evidence of an imminent attack on the United States. And we're going to be foolish enough to give it to him."

Byrd said of all the votes he cast, he was proudest of the one opposing the Iraq resolution.

'Be Careful What You Join'

In a 2006 interview, he recalled voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"I'm sorry for that vote. I made a mistake. If I had to do it over again, I'd vote differently," Byrd said.

When asked how he felt about belonging to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, he replied, "Terrible."

"How many more times am I going to have to say it? I've said it hundreds of times. I don't mind saying it again. It was terrible, it was a mistake, and I say that the young people of today ought to take a lesson from that. They ought to be careful what they join," Byrd said.

Byrd was also widely criticized for language he used in a 2001 Fox News interview when asked about race relations. Byrd said, "Those problems are largely behind us."

"My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody,' " Byrd said. "And we practiced that there are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word."

Byrd subsequently apologized for using an epithet he said dated back to his boyhood in the hills of West Virginia.

'After That, The Dark'

Age also became an issue for Byrd in recent years as he struggled with a tremor that often slowed his speech and forced him to walk with two canes. There were news reports that colleagues thought it was time to move him out of the Appropriations Committee chairmanship. Byrd angrily reacted to such reports in a 2007 floor speech.

"In this Internet-savvy, media-infused culture, we have forgotten that people do get older. Even, dare I say it, old. Old!"

Byrd's wife of nearly 69 years, Erma Ora James, died in 2006 after a long illness. They had two daughters, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore.

Byrd loved to regale fellow senators with tales of growing up poor in West Virginia. Byrd may be best remembered, though, for his love of poetry.

"Poetry, simply put, is beauty defined," Byrd said.

Byrd could recite long passages of poems entirely by heart. He commemorated National Poetry Month in 2001 with Alfred Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar:"

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crossed the bar.