Robert C. Byrd, the late senator who set records for most votes and career longevity, will also be remembered for his style of oration — more in step with the Roman Senate than with the era of Twitter.
As Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin put it:
“No one in the history of the Senate could match Byrd’s thunderous oratory; his sense of history; his determination to teach every President the limits of his power; and his lifelong passion to fight for West Virginia,” Mr. Durbin wrote.
“Daniel Webster, set another chair at heaven’s table,” he added. ” Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia has arrived.”
The Washington Post noted that his prose and historical and literary quotations were more noteworthy, considering that his formal education largely took part after he moved to Washington — earning a law degree in the 1960s, decades before his bachelor’s degree in the 1990s:
Byrd’s love of quoting the Bible, the Constitution, Shakespeare, Cicero, Thucydides and others is all the more notable because he entered office with one semester of college completed.
We’ve pulled together some examples of Byrd’s oration, starting with him reading the preamble to the Constitution — a copy of which he always carried in his breast pocket:
In an interview with the NewsHour, Robert Rupp, a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, explained Byrd’s views of the Constitution and how they related to his beloved Senate:
The dimension that many people overlook is Byrd’s love of the Senate and love of the Constitution, specifically where it gives power to the Senate and separation of power from the executive. So in the back of his mind he is always having that Constitution and looking at it that would justify, as he would say “his senate,” and his Senate power. And so there was a constitutional dimension to his action. ‘Would this hurt the Constitution? Would this hurt the Senate, and this could be the people’s rush to pass an amendment or the people’s rush to have an impeachment.’ He always cautioned patience. You don’t hurry in politics. You don’t hurry to change the Constitution.
Byrd, a staunch defender of separation of powers, waged battle late in his political career against President Bush’s pressure to invade Iraq. Watch one of those speeches.
But words sometimes failed the senator, as they did in an interview with Fox News that raised concerns as to whether his views on race had changed since his days belonging to the Ku Klux Klan.
And in a 2006 interview with NPR, Byrd reflected on voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“I’m sorry for that vote. I made a mistake. If I had to do it over again, I’d vote differently,” Byrd said.
A staple on C-SPAN broadcasts, Byrd often “rhapsodized about spring, Mother’s Day and countless other topics in the Senate chamber.” Here, he reads a poem about raising a child:
Byrd was also a famous dog lover. Here, he calls the dog-fighting allegations against football star Michael Vick “barbaric.”
Even as his own failing health prevented him from appearing in the Senate very often, Byrd spoke about the news that his old friend, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, had a malignant brain tumor: