Byrd Truly the Elder Statesman
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Robert C. Byrd, a champion of classical oratory in the Senate and pork barrel spending back home, yesterday became the longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
The West Virginia Democrat marked his 17,327th day in the Senate by visiting his wife's grave and then listening to several colleagues praise his career. Uncharacteristically for a man who has rhapsodized about spring, Mother's Day and countless other topics in the Senate chamber, Byrd left the floor without speaking, struggling to maintain his composure.
"My darling wife, I just wish she had lived to see this day," he told reporters as he left. Erma Ora James Byrd, who died March 25, would have turned 89 yesterday.
Byrd, 88, eclipsed the late Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in Senate tenure. He long has held the record for the most Senate votes cast, and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said yesterday that he "has held more leadership positions than any other senator."
Byrd aims to keep setting records, running this fall for a ninth six-year term, which would end when he is 95. In a state whose legislature named him "West Virginian of the 20th Century," Byrd is generally favored to defeat GOP business executive John Raese.
Although he is frail and walks with two canes, Byrd still gives theatrical speeches on the importance of preserving the Senate's traditional powers and other issues dear to him. Some of his most emotional orations in the past three years have involved the Iraq war, which he opposed from the start and considers a historic misadventure. He often rips President Bush, whom he has called "dangerous, reckless and arrogant," for launching the invasion with an incomplete assessment of Iraq's weapons.
Beyond Capitol Hill, Byrd's greatest legacy is in the asphalt, concrete, steel and hefty payrolls of the scores of federal projects he has steered to West Virginia from his Appropriations Committee seat, to which his ally Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him. He once said he wanted to be the state's "billion-dollar industry." Analysts say he exceeded the goal, planting major facilities for the FBI, the Treasury Department, Internal Revenue Service and many other agencies in the Mountain State.
Byrd's legacy has its darker sides, most notably his membership in the Ku Klux Klan as a young man eager to enter politics in the 1940s. He repeatedly calls it "the greatest mistake of my life" and acknowledges it will be part of his obituary.
Byrd's love of quoting the Bible, the Constitution, Shakespeare, Cicero, Thucydides and others is all the more notable because he entered office with one semester of college completed. He spent a dozen years in the West Virginia legislature and U.S. House before winning election to the Senate in November 1958. He earned a law degree at American University while he mastered the Senate's rules and climbed its leadership ranks.
Byrd co-wrote a four-volume history of the Senate and published a hefty autobiography last year, "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields." In an unusually testy exchange in 2002 with then-Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, Byrd attacked what he called executive branch abuses and arrogance, adding: "I lived in a house without electricity, too. No running water, no telephone, a little wooden outhouse. . . . I started out in life without any rungs in the bottom ladder."
Yesterday, Byrd played the humble official hoping to win one more election. "The people of West Virginia," he told reporters, "are the people to whom I owe the greatest of praise."