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Constitutional Scholar, Senate Elder Statesman Robert Byrd Remembered

June 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the life and the legacy of Robert Byrd, the Senate’s elder statesman.

GWEN IFILL: Robert C. Byrd arrived in Washington more than half-a-century ago, was reelected to the House and the Senate 10 times, and continued to represent the state of West Virginia until the day he died.

He especially loved and defended the Senate, participated in its most important debates, and became its longest serving member in 2006.

GWEN IFILL: And, although physically frail, he achieved another milestone, the longest serving congressman ever, three years later.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD, D-W.Va.: Today also celebrates the great people of the great and mighty state of West Virginia, who have honored me by repeatedly placing their faith in me.

GWEN IFILL: Byrd entered politics as a state lawmaker in 1946, and never lost an election, serving alongside 11 U.S. presidents. President Obama today hailed Byrd as a venerable institution and a voice of principle and reason. “He had the courage to stand firm in his principles,” Mr. Obama said in a statement, “but also the courage to change over time.”

His colleagues joined in an outpouring of remembrance today.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin:

GOV. JOE MANCHIN, D-W.Va.: There will never be another Robert C. Byrd. There’s no one that we can fill his shoes with. We can just hope that we can carry on some of the beliefs and the hard work that he gave to all of us.

GWEN IFILL: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch:

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah: In the end, I gained such tremendous respect for him and love, and even though we differed on so many issues.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: This senator plays by the rules.

GWEN IFILL: As fierce guardian of the Senate’s rules and prerogatives as he was an advocate for the Mountain State, Senator Byrd left his mark almost everywhere.

Frank and Kiley Lewis live in Charleston.

FRANK LEWIS, resident of Charleston, W.Va.: I think he’s had his hand in just about everything that has happened here, the interstate system. The federal building down in Charleston is named after him. He’s brought in so much money, or pork, as they call it. But he’s — he’s been good to us.

GWEN IFILL: Born in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1917, Byrd’s career tracked the complicated history of a region and a nation. Once an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, he led a 14-hour, 13-minute filibuster against what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

He later apologized, writing in his 2005 memoir that his ties to the Klan in particular “emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me, and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career and reputation.”

Robert Rupp, history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College:

ROBERT RUPP, history professor, West Virginia Wesleyan College: He realized he could not become a power player in the Democratic leadership unless he stepped aside those. So, we see, in ’67 and ’68, when Byrd is ready to reach for the party leadership, a reorientation and, since then, decades of trying to rebuild that bridge to minorities.

GWEN IFILL: Byrd’s longevity earned him the informal title dean of the Senate. He served twice as Senate majority leader and, for two decades, as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. His political rivals eventually became his allies, and his allies inevitably became his friends.

TED STEVENS, R, former U.S. Senator: I don’t think any senator before or any senator in the future will ever know the rules and know the precedents and have lived the Senate the way Senator Byrd has, because he’s not — he’s not only been a senator; he’s lived the life of a senator. And he is the epitome of a person who knows what the rules are and how to use them.

GWEN IFILL: Over time, Byrd became best known not only for his mastery of the rules, but for his passionate speeches on the Senate floor, where he was as likely to quote from the Bible as he was from the copy of the Constitution he carried in his pocket.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt., Judiciary Committee chairman: I don’t know how many — how many times we saw Senator Byrd hold up the copy of the Constitution. The difference between him holding it up and any one of us holding it up, he could put it back in his pocket and recite it verbatim, the whole Constitution.

GWEN IFILL: Byrd would challenge fellow senators and presidents alike.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: If you want to call up an amendment, call it up. Call it up to the underlying substitute. Let’s see if you have got the votes to win.

It is my fervent hope that the president will put away his veto pen.

What guarantee is there that additional Afghan troops and equipment will not produce an even larger and better armed hostile force?

GWEN IFILL: In 2003, he spoke in adamant opposition to the war in Iraq.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: The case that this administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence. We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason: This is not a war of necessity, but a war of choice.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Haught, editor of the state’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette.

JIM HAUGHT, editor, The Charleston Gazette: All the time, he was aging and getting more and more frail and feeble, barely able to walk, and wheeled around in a wheelchair. And, so, it was very sad, but yet he was noble, I thought. And so now he’s my hero exactly a half-century after I was his press assistant.

GWEN IFILL: Byrd’s legacy looms largest in West Virginia, where any number of public works projects bear his name.

ROBERT RUPP: He delivered to the state key projects. What the outside world called pork, he and West Virginians called needed infrastructure.

MARTHA GIBSON, resident, Elkview, W.Va.: Short of Abraham Lincoln, who gave us our statehood, yes, he is the most influential person and the best person we have had to — to represent us ever.

GWEN IFILL: Byrd cast more than 18,000 roll call votes and wrote a four-volume history of the upper chamber.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I have had the privilege, not only to witness, but also to participate, in the great panorama of history, from the apex of the Cold War to the collapse — the collapse of the Soviet Union, from my opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to my part in securing the funds for the building of the memorial to Martin Luther King, from my support for the war in Vietnam to my opposition to President George W. Bush’s war with Iraq.

I have served with so many fine senators in the Congress, and I have loved every precious minute of it.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Carlyle Byrd was 92 years old.