Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, died Monday at the age of 92. Byrd was the president pro tempore of the Senate and third in line to the presidency.
In all, Byrd's congressional career spanned 12 presidencies, numerous wars, countless political movements, and nearly the full arc of the civil rights movement. Once a staunch segregationist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 and praised his fellow Democrat as a "good Christian."
In addition to serving the most years in Congress -- 57 -- Byrd also cast the most votes of any U.S. senator -- more than 18,500. He also held the records for being elected to the most full terms in Senate history, with nine; of being the longest-serving member on any Senate committee; and of holding the most Senate leadership positions, including Senate majority leader (twice) and Senate minority leader.
Byrd's legislative tenure was defined by Southern populism; unabashed defense of coal miners and the coal industry; decades of directing federal spending to his home state of West Virginia; and an evolution on civil rights issues that saw Byrd move from filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to voting consistently for civil rights legislation, beginning in 1968, to eventually championing opportunities and programs for minorities in his later years.
Because of his legislative accomplishments, scholarship of history, loyalty to his home state and mastery of Senate procedure, the Almanac of American Politics once wrote that Byrd came "closer to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other." He was also considered the chamber's resident Constitutional scholar and usually kept a copy of the document in his breast pocket.
Robert Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. on Nov. 20, 1917, in rural North Carolina. After his mother died when he was 1, his father sent him to West Virginia's coal country to live with an aunt and uncle, who adopted him and renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd.
Byrd grew up in West Virginia's Raleigh County and went on to become the valedictorian of his high school class. In the same class was Erma Ora James, his future wife and the woman Byrd often referred to as "the love of my life." The two married shortly after high school graduation in 1937.
Byrd worked a series of odd jobs in his 20s and spent several years rising through the ranks of his local Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist organization that fought against racial integration. According to the New York Times, the Klan's regional grand dragon encouraged Byrd to enter politics, so at the age of 29 Byrd ran for and was elected to the West Virginia legislature, where he served for six years. Byrd later left the Klan and called his membership in it a "sad mistake," but the association with the group dogged him throughout his career in national politics.
That career began in 1952, when he ran for and won a seat in U.S. House of Representatives representing West Virginia. After three terms in the House, he ran for Senate and took office in the upper chamber on the same day in 1959 that Alaska became the 49th state in the union.
Byrd went to Congress without a college degree, but he entered law school at American University in Washington, D.C., and eventually earned his law degree after attending 10 years of night classes while he was a member of both the House and Senate. President John F. Kennedy personally awarded Byrd his law degree at American's commencement ceremony in 1963. In 1994, West Virginia's Marshall University awarded the senator a college diploma when he was 77 years old.
Byrd remained a student of history, especially Roman history, throughout his Senate career. After years of private study sessions with the Senate parliamentarian, Byrd also became an expert on Congress and its traditions.
On Friday afternoons after other senators had left Washington, Byrd could often be found on the Senate floor, lecturing to gallery visitors and tourists about the Roman Senate or the need for civility in politics. Newly elected senators often visited Byrd's office first as a part of their initiation into the body.
He used his mastery of the Senate to win leadership positions for himself, including a spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee. For nearly 30 years, he was the top Democrat on the panel and directed hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money to his long-impoverished home state.
Of all of the debates he saw, including the Senate's debate of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, Byrd told C-SPAN in 2005 that the debate over the invasion of Iraq stood out in his memory as the most tragic. "That debate, such at it was, is etched in my memory forever until kingdom come, because it was there that the Senate gave away its heart and soul."
He was one of the minority of senators who voted against the war.
Over the last several years, Byrd was frequently hospitalized for various health problems, but remained a reliable vote for Democrats on high profile issues. In 2009, he Byrd left his bed during a lengthy illness to vote to confirm Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic member of the Supreme Court. He did so again to cast a crucial vote for the Democrats' health care reform bill.
When he could go to the Capitol in his final years, Byrd used a wheelchair to maneuver the halls of the Senate and he could frequently be spotted just behind Harry Reid on the Senate floor, his head hooked with age, his hand unsteady over the pages he was reading.
During his Senate career, Byrd also authored five books, including "Letter to a New President," in which Byrd counseled Barack Obama, "Only dictators and kings can get away with never admitting their mistakes."
During a Senate ceremony to celebrate Byrd's Senate career in 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Byrd "an orphan who made history" and predicted that no other senator would ever serve as long. "There will never be another senator like Senator Byrd," Reid said.
On the day he became Congress' longest-serving member, Byrd released a statement, thanking the people of West Virginia for electing him and promising to serve 56 more years. "My only regret is that my beloved wife, companion and confidant, my dear Erma, is not here with me to witness this wonderful day," he wrote of his late wife, who died in 2006. "I know that she is looking down from the heavens smiling at me and saying, 'Congratulations, my dear Robert -- but don't let it go to your head.'"
Sen. Byrd is survived by two daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
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