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Sen. Robert Byrd, Longest-Serving Member of Congress, Is Dead at 92

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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.

Robert ByrdByrd'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.

More Robert Byrd Coverage:

- After 51 Years of Robert Byrd, Who's Next as West Virginia's Senator?
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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."

He also recorded his own Blue Grass album, "Mountain Fiddler" and received the Grand Ole Opry's Distinguished Fiddler Award in 2008.

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.
Filed Under: The Capitolist

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242 Comments

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mike

Condolences to Senator Byrd's family and to the people of the great state of West Viriginia. He was an effective, articulate, and honorable Senator. The epitome of why term limits are bad for the country. As someone stated earlier, we have always had term limits, they are called elections.

Senator Byrd's growth as a human and as a politican over the years is truly inspiring. It takes a real adult to admit they made mistakes, far to many politicans and people in general today feel theirs is the only way. To accomplish what he accomplished, Senator Byrd was a civil person who was willing to negotiate and compromise. All of us can learn from that.

July 02 2010 at 6:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rosita3597

A true Klansman until the day he died. Being in the Klan was no mistake on his part.

July 01 2010 at 2:47 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
nanjimlom

Sen Byrd served 57 years and died at 92 years of age. May he rest in peace. He is a man to be honored and remembered. I question whether it was the intent of our founders to make elected office a lifetime career. it appears to me that term limits and perhaps age limits would provide better government than we are now enduring.

July 01 2010 at 11:34 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
elffkin

Rest in peace. A great Senator--if only we had more like him.

June 30 2010 at 11:47 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
nomini3

Hope you don't mind thor 55 that I copied your words on the loss of Senator Byrd. But you expressed so beautifully my feelings and sentiments about this remarkable man. West Virginia should thank this incredible man for all he has done for their state. RIP Senator Byrd. You have set an example that too many politicians can't follow.

the people of W. Virginia have lost their 'favorite son" an we as a nation have lost a legend among senators. my deepest respects to Senator Byrd"s Family. one can only imagine the life that this man had. orphan to kkk to congressman to civil rights champion to senator to president pro tempore. an who said "flip-flop" on the issues was a bad thing? anyone who rights a wrong an does so in plain view of the American public is a better man than most i know...all leadership in office should take note of that fact. as a neighbor from the State of Ohio i have seen 1st hand the works of Senator Byrd"s West Virginia. from worn out jokes to one of our nation's most beautiful states the people of that state are to be thanked for "their gift" to this great nation of ours. an though i may not have ageed with all his issues, i for one stand with him as saying our invasion of Iraq was one of the darkest moments in our storied history. God Bless Senator Byrd, i for one will miss you. Don Frascone from Ohio

June 29 2010 at 12:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nomini3's comment
bmgrz

Are you guys kidding me?? This guy was a high ranking member of the KKK and was still making negative statements about other "races" as late as 2005. If you really care to understand this "man" look up some of his well known public statements. I won't even quote them on this blog, they were horrible. Jews, Catholics, African Americans were all in his line of sight.

IMO someone like this does not change. He went underground and apologized to stay in politics period!

July 04 2010 at 10:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
thor55

the people of W. Virginia have lost their 'favorite son" an we as a nation have lost a legend among senators. my deepest respects to Senator Byrd"s Family. one can only imagine the life that this man had. orphan to kkk to congressman to civil rights champion to senator to president pro tempore. an who said "flip-flop" on the issues was a bad thing? anyone who rights a wrong an does so in plain view of the American public is a better man than most i know...all leadership in office should take note of that fact. as a neighbor from the State of Ohio i have seen 1st hand the works of Senator Byrd"s West Virginia. from worn out jokes to one of our nation's most beautiful states the people of that state are to be thanked for "their gift" to this great nation of ours. an though i may not have ageed with all his issues, i for one stand with him as saying our invasion of Iraq was one of the darkest moments in our storied history. God Bless Senator Byrd, i for one will miss you. Don Frascone from Ohio

June 29 2010 at 8:49 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
maestropsls

Sorry he passed and may he rest in peace. He was there to long. That is what is wrong with our govt' now. They get there and stay. It was never meant to be that way by the founding fathers. They get there and get the salary, perks and power. Nothing but a formula for corruption and good old boys as usual.

June 28 2010 at 11:20 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to maestropsls's comment
codifex maximus

The Good Ole Boy system is not abhorrent in and of itself. It is a form of fellowship and political unity. It is a political reality and how things actually get done. That said, system tends to be exclusive and insular.

The Founding Fathers knew this and built the Constitution in a way that attempted to limit excess. Congressmen are up for review every six years.

Political Parties are also a form of Good Ole Boy system. As you can see, it is very difficult to get elected to any high office unless you are a member of one of these parties.

There will always be Good Ole Boys; the trick is to strike a balance. When things get unbalanced, excesses occur.

July 04 2010 at 10:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Linda K

May Senator Byrd rest in peace and may God comfort his family and friends.

June 28 2010 at 10:14 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Sharon

He spent a great portion of his life doing what he seemed to "enjoy." He lived for 92 years. Time must have flew for him. We should all be that lucky.

June 28 2010 at 10:10 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
mayolayao

God bless sen. Byrd's family,i will be attending the services to pay my respects

June 28 2010 at 10:05 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

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