Sen. Robert C. Byrd, champion of the Constitution and his home state, dies at 92

By Joe Holley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 28, 2010; 11:14 PM

Robert C. Byrd, an orphan from the West Virginia coal fields who served more than half a century in the Senate and used his canny, masterful knowledge of the institution to protect its rules, shape the federal budget and, above all else, tend to the interests of his impoverished state, died Monday. He was 92.

Elected to an unprecedented nine terms, beginning in 1958, Sen. Byrd served for nearly a quarter of the nation's history, and on Monday his Senate desk was draped in black cloth and white roses. He wrote a four-volume history of his beloved Senate, 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.

Sen. 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. His fortitude propelled him to defy President George W. Bush on Iraq and to deliver to President Obama a critical yea vote last winter on the health-care insurance overhaul. He bested a blizzard and raised a weak hand from his wheelchair to do it.

Sen. Byrd had been hospitalized last week with what was thought to be heat exhaustion and dehydration, but more serious issues were discovered, aides said Sunday. He died at Inova Fairfax Hospital. No formal cause of death was given.

"Senator Byrd's story was uniquely American," Obama said Monday 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."

In many ways, that change mirrored the nation's own. Once an avowed segregationist who filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Sen. Byrd apologized and became an advocate for equality, including the rights of gays to serve in the military. His dog-eared copy of the Constitution was his compass, and he fought amending it with language about the sanctity of marriage and the desecration of the flag.

Although he mined extraordinary amounts of federal largess for his perennially impoverished state, Sen. 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 institutional memory and as guardian of its independence. As the Senate Judiciary Committee convened Monday to consider the nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, one by one Sen. Byrd's fellow senators praised his service and his fierce insistence on Congress's role as a check to presidential power.

As a young man, Sen. 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 reflected racially separatist views. As those views moderated, Sen. Byrd rose in the party hierarchy.

A lifelong autodidact and a firm believer in continuing education -- vocational schools, community colleges, adult education -- Sen. 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. At 77, he received his undergraduate degree from Marshall University, and not an honorary one, either: He earned it, summa cum laude.

"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, Sen. Byrd was the author of a 770-page memoir and "Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency" (2004), a well-received and stinging critique of what he considered Bush's rush to war with Iraq.

Part of the book's power, reviewers said, was that the author 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.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), minority leader of the Senate, said Sen. 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, Sen. 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 the National Journal 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."

Sen. 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 Sen. Byrd as "a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde personality -- his tongue was smoother than butter, but war was in his heart."

Sen. 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, Sen. 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 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 child 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, Sen. 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. Sen. Byrd discovered that he was nearly two months older than he thought.

As his foster father drifted from job to job, Sen. Byrd grew up in a succession of hardscrabble company towns. His first job was collecting garbage scraps for the 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 briefly as a gas station attendant 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, Sen. Byrd was eager to get ahead. He studied a meat cutter's manual and by the end of the 1930s was earning $85 a month as a grocery store head butcher. He kept the job for 12 years.

After working as a shipyard welder in Baltimore during World War II, he returned to West Virginia, opened a grocery store and began an adult Bible class at his church. 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 and then took out his fiddle.

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," Robert Sherrill wrote in a 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, Sen. 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 Sen. Byrd had been a Klan member in 1942-43.

Sen. 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."

But 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 the mid-Atlantic states, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington County, to drive to Crab Orchard to help Sen. Byrd organize a local chapter.

With both of West Virginia's Senate seats up for election in 1958, the 40-year-old congressman decided to make his move, and Sen. 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 Sen. Byrd's mentor, rewarding the freshman with a seat on the Appropriations Committee. But in 1961, when Johnson became vice president, Sen. Byrd joined Southern Democrats in opposition to the landmark legislation outlawing racial segregation in schools, public places and employment. Relying on licorice pellets and sips of milk for energy, Sen. Byrd filibustered for more than 14 hours.

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, Sen. Byrd told an aide, "I'm the only one who must vote for this bill." In 2008, Sen. 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, Sen. 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 of Massachusetts. 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, in the wake of the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. Sen. Byrd had the legislative, leadership and management skills for the job.

Although he supported the legislative program of the new Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, Sen. 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.

But his legislative skills saved some of Carter's foreign policy initiatives from certain defeat. He broadened support for the administration's proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and 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, Sen. Byrd became chairman of the Appropriations Committee and soon proclaimed, "I want to be West Virginia's billion-dollar industry." He succeeded.

Today, the economically distressed state is 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 NASA research center in Wheeling, and a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Martinsburg. He even managed to place Navy and Coast Guard offices in his landlocked state.

Just last month, at a Senate hearing into the April explosion that killed 29 mine workers in West Virginia, Sen. Byrd made a rare appearance and blasted the mine's ownership. "I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers," he said.

It was Sen. Byrd's last public speech, and it was as if he were underlining a pledge he had made in 2005:

"I will continue to do this work until this old body just gives out and drops," he declared in a prepared floor speech. "Don't expect that to be anytime soon."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company