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Sen. Robert Byrd dead at 92; West Virginia lawmaker was the longest serving member of Congress in history

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) served in the U.S. Congress longer than any member in history. The nine-term senator assumed office Jan. 3, 1959, after serving three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"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," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said in a statement. "But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain."

In addition to his multivolume history of the Senate, Mr. Byrd was author of a 770-page memoir as well as "Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency" (2004), a well-received and stinging critique of what he considered President George W. Bush's rush to war with Iraq.

Part of the book's power, reviewers noted, was that he was one of the few senators in office during the Vietnam War, of which he had been a staunch supporter.

"He played a unique role as a prime defender of the Senate during decades of increasing power of the presidency," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

In his book and on the Senate floor, he was scathing in his contempt for the Bush administration's doctrine of "preemptive war" and "regime change." He castigated his fellow lawmakers for swiftly delegating to the president the decision to go to war.

On March 19, 2003, Mr. Byrd delivered the first of what became regular attacks on the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. "Today I weep for my country," he said in a speech on the Senate floor. "I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed."

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), minority leader of the Senate, said Mr. Byrd will be remembered 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."

Dour and aloof, a socially awkward outsider in the clubby confines of the Senate, Mr. Byrd relied not on personality but on dogged attention to detail to succeed on Capitol Hill.

"The more people in Washington questioned his skills, the harder he worked," Lawrence J. Haas wrote in National Journal magazine in 1991. "The more they laughed behind his back -- because of the pompadour he sported, or because of his halting speaking style -- the more he dug in, determined to succeed."

Mr. Byrd chaired the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the District from 1961 to 1969 and took it upon himself to rid the majority-black city of ineligible welfare recipients.

Protesters picketed his McLean home and held anti-Byrd rallies in city parks. The Washington Afro-American newspaper proposed a "Negro boycott" of products manufactured in West Virginia. The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, who in 1971 became the District's first congressional representative, described Mr. Byrd as "a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde personality -- his tongue was smoother than butter, but war was in his heart."

"Some senators, in the course of their careers, make their reputations as authorities on the armed service, on taxation, on foreign relations, on housing, on science and technology, on medical care," journalist and author Milton Viorst wrote in 1967 in Washingtonian magazine. "Sen. Robert C. Byrd has made his reputation as an authority on the mating habits of Washington's underprivileged."

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