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

By Joe Holley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 28, 2010; 4:52 PM

Robert C. Byrd, 92, a conservative West Virginia Democrat who became the longest-serving member of Congress in history and used his masterful knowledge of the institution to shape the federal budget, protect the procedural rules of the Senate and, above all else, tend to the interests of his state, died at 3 a.m. Monday at Inova Fairfax Hospital, his office said.

Mr. Byrd had been hospitalized last week with what was thought to be heat exhaustion, but more serious issues were discovered, aides said Sunday. No formal cause of death was given.

Starting in 1958, Mr. Byrd was elected to the Senate an unprecedented nine times. He wrote a four-volume history of the body, was majority leader twice and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, controlling the nation's purse strings, and yet the positions of influence he held did not convey the astonishing arc of his life.

A child of the West Virginia coal fields, Mr. Byrd rose from the grinding poverty that has plagued his state since before the Great Depression, overcame an early and ugly association with the Ku Klux Klan, worked his way through night school and by force of will, determination and iron discipline made himself a person of authority and influence in Washington.

"Senator Byrd's story was uniquely American," President Obama said in a statement. " . . . He scaled the summit of power, but his mind never strayed from the people of his beloved West Virginia. He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time."

Although he mined extraordinary amounts of federal largesse for his perennially impoverished state, Mr. Byrd's reach extended beyond the bounds of the Mountain State.

As chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the District from 1961 to 1969, he reveled in his role as scourge, grilling city officials at marathon hearings and railing against unemployed black men and unwed mothers on welfare.

He was known for his stentorian orations seasoned with biblical and classical allusions and took pride in being the Senate's resident constitutional scholar, keeping a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. He saw himself both as institutional memory and as guardian of the Senate's prerogatives.

Most West Virginians had more immediate concerns, and Mr. Byrd strove to address them. On the Appropriations Committee, he pumped billions of dollars worth of jobs, programs and projects into a state that ranked near the bottom of nearly every economic indicator when he began his political career as a state legislator in the late 1940s. Countless congressional earmarks later, West Virginia is home to prisons, technology centers, laboratories and Navy and Coast Guard offices (despite being a landlocked state).

Critics mocked him as the "prince of pork," but West Virginians expressed their gratitude by naming countless roads and buildings after him. He also was the only West Virginian to be elected to both houses of the state legislature and both houses of Congress.

As a young man, Mr. Byrd was an "exalted cyclops" of the Ku Klux Klan. Although he apologized numerous times for what he considered a youthful indiscretion, his early votes in Congress -- notably a filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- reflected racially separatist views. As those views moderated, Mr. Byrd rose in the party hierarchy.

A lifelong autodidact and a firm believer in continuing education -- vocational schools, community colleges, adult education -- Mr. Byrd practiced what he preached. While in the U.S. House from 1953 to 1959, he took night classes at law schools. He received a law degree from American University in 1963 and is the only member of Congress to put himself through law school while in office.

"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."

Mr. Byrd drastically cut the welfare rolls, even as he supported a higher federal contribution to the city and championed public schools, playgrounds, swimming pools and libraries. He doubled the number of social workers and increased payments to foster parents.

In his 2005 memoir, "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields," he said his efforts directed at Washington were meant "toward supporting programs aimed at stabilizing community life in the city."

In April 1968, when riots erupted on the streets of downtown Washington after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- a man who should be barred from the city, Mr. Byrd once insisted -- the senator recommended calling up federal troops.

"If it requires the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, we should put the troublemakers in their places," he said. Looters should be shot, "swiftly and mercilessly."

Although he initially opposed District home rule, he eventually changed his mind. "In the years when I was looking at the District so closely, I realized that there was a lack of responsibility at the local government level," he told The Washington Post in 1971.

Self-government, he came to believe, would "place the responsibility right where it ought to be, and there would be no further passing of the buck to Congress."

Robert Carlyle Byrd was in fact born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. on Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C. When his mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, his father sent the 10-month-old youngster to live with an aunt and uncle, Vlurma and Titus Dalton Byrd, in Stotesbury, a coal-mining community in the hills of West Virginia.

Despite living relatively close by, Mr. Byrd's true father, who spent much of his time trying to build a perpetual motion machine, never made an effort to see his son, who was 16 before he learned his real name. He didn't learn his real birth date until 1971, when an older brother told him. Mr. Byrd discovered he was nearly two months older than he thought.

As his foster father drifted from job to job, Mr. Byrd grew up in a succession of hardscrabble company towns. His first job was collecting garbage scraps for 10 or 12 hogs his "Pap" kept on coal company property between the railroad tracks and a creek.

He was the valedictorian of the 1934 graduating class of Stotesbury's Mark Twain High School, but the Depression kept him out of college. He worked as a gas station attendant briefly and then in the produce department of a grocery store. In 1937, he married Erma Ora James. Both were 19 and had known each other since grade school.

She died after 68 years of marriage, while her husband was campaigning for reelection in 2006. Their two daughters, Mona Carol Fatemi of McLean and Marjorie Ellen Moore of Leesburg, survive him, as do five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

As a young married man with two daughters, Mr. Byrd was eager to get ahead. He studied a meat cutter's manual in his spare time and by the end of the 1930s was earning $85 a month as head butcher at a grocery store in Crab Orchard, W.Va. He kept the job for 12 years.

After working as a shipyard welder in Baltimore during World War II, he returned to West Virginia and opened a grocery store in Sophia. A born-again Christian, he taught an adult Bible class at Crab Orchard Baptist Church that grew from six people to 636 in a year. When the radio station in nearby Beckley began to broadcast his fiery fundamentalist lessons, he became a local celebrity.

In 1946, he ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates. He met nearly every voter in the district while campaigning alone throughout the little coal-mining towns and backwoods hollows. When he made public appearances, he laid out his positions on the issues and then took out his fiddle.

He read music and could play classical pieces, but on the campaign trail he played the mountain tunes his neighbors knew and loved, the same songs he had played for years at coal camp square dances and Saturday night frolics.

Because he didn't know how to drive at the time, he'd have a miner ferry him around the district, and he'd invite the men to come out and sit in the car with him while he sawed away at "Ida Red," "Old Joe Clark," "Bile Them Cabbage Down" and other Appalachian tunes.

"The back seat of an automobile is a rather odd place to play a violin, considering the bowing room that is needed, but apparently Byrd could pull it off," Sherrill wrote in the 1971 New York Times article.

Voters elected the 28-year-old grocer to the state House with an overwhelming majority. In 1950, he won a state Senate seat by a similar margin.

"I worked hard," he wrote in his memoir. "I never spent time at after-hours joints around Charleston, as was the habit of some members of the legislature."

In 1952, Mr. Byrd announced his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives from West Virginia's 6th Congressional District. During the Democratic primary, his principal opponent revealed that Mr. Byrd had been a Klan member in 1942-43.

Mr. Byrd bought radio and television time to acknowledge his Klan affiliation, characterizing it as a "mistake of youth." He apologized repeatedly over the years, describing it as "the greatest mistake of my life."

However, at the time of his membership, he was apparently an enthusiastic participant. He once persuaded 150 of his neighbors to join -- membership fee, $10; robe and hood, $3 -- prompting the grand dragon of mid-Atlantic states, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington County, to drive to Crab Orchard to help Mr. Byrd organize a local chapter.

The fledgling congressional candidate won the 1952 primary, but shortly before the general election, his Republican opponent released a letter that Mr. Byrd had written to the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1946, three years after he had allegedly left the Klan.

In the letter, Mr. Byrd wrote, "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia" and "in every state in the Union."

The governor demanded that Mr. Byrd withdraw from the Democratic ticket, as did most of the state's newspapers, but friends and neighbors donated 50 cents here and a dollar there so he could keep his campaign going. He won with 57.4 percent of the vote and was reelected by larger margins in 1954 and 1956.

With both of West Virginia's Senate seats up for election in 1958, the 40-year-old congressman decided to make his move. Mr. Byrd lambasted President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his "lack of strong leadership" on foreign policy, his weak response to the Soviet scientific threat symbolized by the Sputnik satellite launch and his inability to stem the tide of recession.

Mr. Byrd won handily, even though the United Mine Workers initially opposed him and the coal companies worked to beat him.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.), became Mr. Byrd's mentor, rewarding the freshman with a seat on the Appropriations Committee. In the House, Mr. Byrd had voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first significant effort to guarantee voting rights since Reconstruction. He also voted, at Johnson's behest, for the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which established federal inspection of local voter registration rolls. Eisenhower signed the bill into law.

But in 1961, when Johnson became vice president, Mr. Byrd allied himself with Richard B. Russell, the powerful Democratic senator from Georgia and architect of the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He joined Southern Democrats in opposition to the landmark legislation, which outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places and employment. Relying on licorice pellets and sips of milk for energy, Mr. Byrd filibustered for more than 14 hours in an effort to bury the legislation.

"Men are not created equal today, and they were not created equal in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written," Mr. Byrd proclaimed during the filibuster. "Men and races of men differ in appearance, ways, physical power, mental capacity, creativity and vision."

He opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and most of Johnson's "war on poverty" programs. "We can take the people out of the slums, but we cannot take the slums out of the people," he said. "Wherever some people go the slums will follow. People first have to clean up inside themselves."

His detractors labeled him a racist hillbilly, but quietly over the years he worked to shed that image. When he arrived in the Senate in 1959, he had hired one of the Capitol's first black congressional aides. When a vote on making King's birthday a federal holiday came up on the floor of the Senate in 1983, Mr. Byrd told an aide, "I'm the only one who must vote for this bill." In 2008, Mr. Byrd endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president.

Known for his detailed knowledge of bills under consideration and his familiarity with the arcane rules of parliamentary procedure, Mr. Byrd was elected secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference in 1967.

Taking on tedious and seemingly insignificant tasks, paying close attention to minor legislative and scheduling details and making himself available virtually around the clock, he became what The Washington Post called "the indispensable man."

In 1971, he ran for the position of Democratic whip and defeated the incumbent, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, at a time when the Massachusetts senator was distracted by a personal scandal. In 1969, Kennedy had driven a car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., and a young female passenger drowned. Mr. Byrd relied on votes from Southern and border-state senators, including a deathbed proxy from his old mentor Russell.

When he became majority whip, Mr. Byrd was the third most conservative senator outside the South, but within weeks of assuming whip duties, his voting record began to moderate. Although he never relinquished his conservative, moralistic demeanor, he began to support most civil rights legislation, including the Equal Rights Amendment. He also continued to vote with Senate liberals on housing, unemployment benefits, Social Security and public works projects.

"A leadership role is different," he said, "and one does represent a broader constituency."

He was elected majority leader by acclamation in 1977, at a time of new legislative and investigative opportunities for the Democrats, thanks to the Watergate political scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. Mr. Byrd had the legislative, leadership and management skills to take advantage.

Although he supported the legislative program of the new Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, Mr. Byrd and Carter occasionally clashed. He chastised the president for failing to consult with Senate leadership on key appointments and legislative policies and refused to waste time on bills that, as far as he was concerned, had little chance of passing.

He used his legislative skills to save Carter's foreign policy initiatives from certain defeat. He broadened support for the administration's proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea by introducing a compromise amendment that ensured congressional participation in the final plan. He also smoothed passage of the controversial Panama Canal treaties.

He continued as minority leader from 1981 to 1987 and served a second term as majority leader in 1987-88. "Once the Democrats lost their majority, they were looking for something else, someone who could put together an agenda and speak effectively for what they wanted to do," said Mann of the Brookings Institution. "They didn't want [Byrd] being their public representative."

In 1989, Mr. Byrd became chairman of the Appropriations Committee and soon proclaimed, "I want to be West Virginia's billion-dollar industry." He succeeded.

The economically distressed state became home to an FBI fingerprint center in Clarksburg, Treasury and IRS offices in Parkersburg, a Fish and Wildlife Service training center in Shepherdstown, a federal prison in Beckley, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Martinsburg and a NASA research center in Wheeling. He made an unsuccessful effort to move the CIA to West Virginia.

West Virginia is dotted with more than 30 federal projects named after Mr. Byrd, including two Robert C. Byrd U.S. courthouses, four Robert C. Byrd stretches of roadway, a Robert C. Byrd Bridge, two Robert C. Byrd interchanges, a Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam project and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.

Mr. Byrd was reelected in 2000 with 78 percent of the vote, compared with 20 percent for his closest rival, the largest margin in his long career.

"West Virginia has always had four friends," he said that election night, "God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter's Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd."

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