ROBERT C. BYRD, 1917-2010

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

Sen. Robert C. Byrd took pride in being the guardian of the Senate's independence.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd took pride in being the guardian of the Senate's independence. (Linda Davidson/the Washington Post)
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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."

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