Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, died Monday morning at the age of 92. He spent 51 years in the Senate – the longest tenure in American history. His six additional years in the House of Representatives qualify him as the longest-serving member of Congress. Over the course of nine terms, Byrd held a series of leadership positions including majority whip, majority leader, president pro tempore and leader of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Raised in West Virginia coal mining country, Byrd graduated as valedictorian of his high school, but lacked the money to go straight to college. Instead, he received a law diploma from American University in 1963 and a bachelor’s degree from Marshall University at age 77, earning both degrees while serving as a senator. Yet despite his delayed college career, Byrd was a formidable autodidact known for including Shakespearean allusions and references to democratic precedent of the Greeks and Romans in his speeches on the Senate floor.
Byrd’s views on divisive issues evolved as his career endured. He voted in favor of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which enabled Lyndon Johnson to authorize the Vietnam War, but was one of the most outspoken opponents of the 2002 Iraq War Resolution which allowed President George W. Bush to move forward with plans for war in Iraq. Byrd moved beyond his early experience as a Ku Klux Klansman and his 14-hour, 13-minute filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to endorse then-Senator Barack Obama as the 2008 democratic candidate for president.
Byrd carried a copy of the U.S. Constitution with him and directed federal money toward projects in his own state, helping to alleviate the dire conditions he faced while growing up. President Obama honored his legacy in a statement:
Senator Byrd’s story was uniquely American. He was born into wrenching poverty, but educated himself to become an authoritative scholar, respected leader and unparalleled champion of our Constitution. 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.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of Senator Byrd’s support for New Yorkers in his capacity as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee after 9/11 in this statement:
Senator Byrd was a man of surpassing eloquence and nobility. I will remember him most for a heartfelt comment he made to me in the dark days following 9/11, when my state of New York was reeling and we were scrambling to provide support and relief. ‘Think of me as the third senator from New York,’ he said. And he meant it.
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote of Byrd’s mastery of Senate protocol and parliamentary procedure:
Byrd was, famously, a master of the body’s arcane rules. He wrote a four-volume history of the institution. At a recent lecture on the history of the Senate, the speaker said that there were only ever two people in the room who knew what was going on: The parliamentarian and Robert Byrd.
Political commentator Paul Begala wrote of Byrd’s transformation from segregationist to proponent of racial equality:
While so many southern Democrats changed parties because of race, Byrd changed his position on race. He went on to earn a 100% rating from the NAACP, and shepherded $10 million in funding for Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall.
And Mark Ambinder, politics editor of The Atlantic, reflected on Byrd’s recent influence on major legislation and what his absence could mean for the Obama administration’s current agenda:
Without his blessing, it’s unlikely that Democrats would have been able to use the budget reconciliation procedure to pass its historical health care reform bill. And this week, Byrd’s vote on financial regulatory reform was needed by the Democratic conference.