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Senate titan Robert Byrd dies at 92

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia sat with his shih tzu, Trouble. He spent 12 years as Senate Democratic leader. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia sat with his shih tzu, Trouble. He spent 12 years as Senate Democratic leader. (Linda Davidson/Washington Post)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who was the longest-serving senator in US history and whose grandiloquent oratory and unrivaled command of parliamentary rules made him the Senate’s unofficial dean, died early yesterday at a Fairfax, Va., hospital. He was 92.

Senator Byrd, a fiddle-playing former Ku Klux Klansman, became an unlikely liberal hero in the final decade and a half of his Senate tenure, most notably with his fierce opposition to the Bush administration.

“I stand here today,’’ Senator Byrd declared on the Senate floor on Oct. 10, 2002, during the debate on a resolution authorizing the war in Iraq, “before this chamber and before this nation, urging, pleading, for some sanity, for more time to consider this resolution, for more hard evidence on the need for this resolution.’’ Despite his eloquence and influence, the resolution passed.

He was also the Senate’s foremost opponent of the Republicans’ Contract with America in 1995.

Senator Byrd rose from the hardscrabble hollows of West Virginia to spend 12 years as Senate Democratic leader. He was majority leader from 1977 to 1981 and again from 1987 to 1989, and minority leader from 1981 to 1987. At the time of his death, he was president pro tempore of the Senate and had been in frail health for several months.

“He scaled the summit of power, but his mind never strayed from the people of his beloved West Virginia,’’ President Obama said in a statement. “He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time.’’

“The Senate lost its guardian, West Virginia lost a champion, and many of us lost a teacher,’’ said Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Long before Senator Byrd attracted a national following, he had earned the loyalty of West Virginians through his attentiveness to their needs. He liked to say that there were four things his constituents believed in: “God Almighty, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Sears Roebuck, and Robert C. Byrd.’’

Like the deity, Senator Byrd provided for his state. Like the pills, he saw to its health. And like Sears, he delivered. He gave up his majority leader post to assume chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee and guide some $1.5 billion in federal spending to his home state.

“Prosperity flows along concrete rivers,’’ he would say, and today West Virginians drive along the Robert C. Byrd Expressway, the Robert C. Byrd Highway, and the Robert C. Byrd Freeway. Senator Byrd’s legacy even extends to the information superhighway. At the College of West Virginia’s Robert C. Byrd Education and Resource Center, the computers have as their screen savers the image of the center’s smiling namesake.

Senator Byrd was revered in West Virginia for his ability to bring home the bacon, but the nation knew him for his ornate speeches, full of literary allusions and high-flown rhetoric. Delivering his orations, he seemed to belong to an earlier, grander age, when senatorial aristocrats cited the classics as they pondered the great issues of the day.

Certainly, Senator Byrd was more in tune with Cicero than C-SPAN.

“The Senate has lost its soul,’’ he lamented in 1993. “Senators’ concerns should not be how many times they appear on TV.’’

Eventually, Senator Byrd became something of a TV star himself. Seven hundred people turned out in Cambridge in 2004 at a promotional event for his bestselling book, “Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.’’ “It was like the Beatles were here,’’ said one of the event’s organizers.

There was nothing aristocratic about Robert Carlyle Byrd’s background. He was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. in North Wilkesboro, N.C., on Nov. 20, 1917. His mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, when he was 10 months old. His father sent him to live with his aunt and uncle, Vlurma (Sale) Byrd and Titus Dalton Byrd, in Stotesbury, W.Va.

It was not until he was 16 that he learned he was adopted.

He excelled at his studies and was valedictorian of his 25-member high school class, yet poverty kept him from going to college. “We lived in hard times,’’ he later recalled. “We didn’t have much, didn’t expect much.’’ (He later took night classes and in 1963 became the only sitting member of Congress ever to earn a law degree, from American University.)

After jobs as a gas station attendant and a grocery clerk, he studied a meat-cutting manual and became a butcher. During World War II, he worked as a shipyard welder.

He beat 12 opponents to win a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, a victory some observers attributed to his fiddling skills. (Capitalizing on his Senate fame, he later recorded an album performing his favorite tunes.) In 1948, he won a state Senate seat.

When he ran for the US House of Representatives in 1952, a Democratic primary opponent disclosed that he had been a kleagle, or organizer, in the Klan in 1942 and 1943. Owning up to his membership, Senator Byrd dismissed it as a “mistake of youth.’’

Then in the general election, the Republican nominee revealed that his opponent had written to the Imperial Wizard of the Klan in 1946 that the KKK “is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here . . . [and] in every state of the Union.’’ Disowned by the governor and most West Virginia newspapers, Senator Byrd nonetheless managed to win the House seat. Reelected in 1954 and 1956, he moved up to the Senate in 1958.

Senator Byrd voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the nomination of the first African-American to be named to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. He later expressed regret for all three votes, but over the remainder of the ’60s he offered consistently sharp views on race. “We can take the people out of the slums,’’ he declared at that time, “but we cannot take the slums out of the people.’’

Because of his conservative social views, President Nixon later seriously considered putting Senator Byrd on the Supreme Court.

In 1967, he was elected secretary of the Democratic Conference, the number three party leadership position. Senator Byrd made himself indispensable by his attentiveness to legislative housekeeping: helping draft legislation, scheduling bills for debate, delaying votes.

Four years later, he chose to run against the incumbent majority whip, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.

In a shocking upset, the workhorse beat the showhorse, and Senator Byrd was positioned to move up to the number one position, which he did in 1977 when Senator Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana, gave up the majority leader position.

Jimmy Carter said yesterday that Senator Byrd “was my closest and most valuable adviser’’ during his presidency. Senator Byrd was instrumental in getting the votes to pass the Panama Canal treaty Carter wanted, overcoming strong Republican opposition.

When Senator Byrd surrendered his leadership position to take over the Appropriations Committee, he vowed to gain $1 billion in federal funds for West Virginia within five years.

He did it in two.

Denounced as “King of Pork,’’ Senator Byrd shrugged off the criticism. “If I wanted to go crazy, I’d do it in Washington, where they wouldn’t know the difference.’’

The author of a two-volume history of the Senate, Senator Byrd revered the institution and was acknowledged by colleagues from both parties as its foremost authority on procedural matters. His opinion carried enormous weight on both sides of the aisle.

“We will remember him for his fighter’s spirit, his abiding faith, and for the many times he recalled the Senate to its purposes,’’ Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said yesterday.

Senator Byrd had marshaled Democratic opposition to the Republican majority in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress and used his mastery of Senate procedure to hinder passage of the measures called for in the GOP’s Contract with America. It was as much tribute as accusation when Senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, dubbed the result “Byrdlock.’’

Senator Byrd and Kennedy long ago put their differences behind them. “Ted, Ted, my dear friend, I love you and I miss you,’’ Senator Byrd said in an emotional speech on the Senate floor when it was learned Kennedy had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008.

On Nov. 18, 2009, his 20,774th day in Congress, Senator Byrd became the longest-serving member of that body.

Senator Byrd’s wife, Erma Ora (James) Byrd, died in 2006. He leaves two daughters, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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