Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), unofficial historian of the Senate and widely acclaimed master of its rules and folkways, will become the chamber’s longest-serving member June 12, surpassing the mark set by South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond (R).
On that day, Byrd will have served 17,327 days in the upper chamber.
The adopted son of a coal miner, Byrd rose to majority leader — and higher, in his estimation, to the Appropriations Committee chairmanship — during a Senate career that began in 1959. He has been held up as a paragon of the cultural conservatism that his party long ago discarded and as a hero to liberals who oppose the Iraq war.
A former member of the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd staged a 14-hour, 13-minute filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he also has sought to improve the plight of the working poor, particularly West Virginians, by backing organized labor and sending federal money across the Appalachians.
Byrd has represented the aggregate interests and values of West Virginia’s electorate, as evidenced by a string of eight consecutive Senate victories. His smallest winning percentage, in the 1958 election, was 59 percent.
He will be 95 if he wins and completes the unprecedented ninth term he is seeking this November. Republicans failed to recruit their best hope, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, to run against him this year. Capito’s father chose not to run more than 40 years ago.
Byrd, a populist, fiddle-playing Child of the Appalachian Coalfields — the title of his 2005 autobiography — quotes liberally from the Bible and the Constitution, from Greek scholars and Roman warriors, and from poets, playwrights and historians. A 15-cent edition of the nation’s charter has a permanent seat in his shirt pocket.
Byrd’s handle on history and his oratorical flair are the result of a lifetime of self-education and a quest for knowledge that led him to earn a law degree from American University when he was well into his 40s and a decade into his congressional career.
“He’s one of my heroes. I have never met a greater example of a self-made American than him,” Rep. David Obey (Wis.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and a 40-year House veteran, said last week.
AN INSTITUTION IS BORN
When Byrd arrived in the Senate on Jan. 3, 1959, after three terms in the House, there was no telling that the 41-year-old would become an institution within the institution. But Byrd’s love of the upper chamber already had taken root.
“It was a great moment for me because I had a great reverence for the Senate as a pillar of the Constitution,” Byrd said in an interview. “I was proud of the people of West Virginia. I was proud to serve them, proud that they elected me, proud that they chose me.”
Rather than following tradition and being escorted into the chamber by his state’s senior senator, Byrd was accompanied to the well that first day by Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, an already legendary figure whose own rise to power from humble roots provided a natural model for Byrd to emulate.
“I don’t remember how close he was to Lyndon, but Bob really wanted to be like Lyndon,” former Sen. George Smathers (D-Fla.) told the Senate’s associate historian, Donald Ritchie.
“He was not in the leadership then, but he was formidable, clearly,” Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said of his first impressions of Byrd in 1968.
THE TOP JOB — AND THE BETTER JOBS
Byrd’s ability to deliver favors to colleagues helped him topple Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) as Democratic whip in 1971. Six years later, he succeeded Sen. Mike Mansfield (Mont.) as majority leader.
Byrd employed many of the tactics Senate leaders use frequently today, including detailed unanimous-consent agreements and efforts to “fill the tree” with amendments. He tried to wear down filibusters, attempting eight times to invoke cloture on a campaign-finance bill in 1988 — a record that still stands — and used the rules to crush dilatory action after a supermajority of the Senate had voted to end debate on a 1977 bill.
“I did not hesitate to do things my way, although I realized that others sometimes did not like my approach,” Byrd wrote in his autobiography, adding that it was difficult to be both loved and respected. “If there had to be such a choice, I chose to be respected.”
After 12 years as Democratic leader, split between the majority and the minority, Byrd left to become chairman of the Appropriations Committee, where he could send money to West Virginia, and president pro tempore of the Senate, where he would be in line to the presidency.
In places, Byrd’s autobiography is little more than a list of the projects he secured for West Virginia — including the headquarters of the Bureau of Public Debt.
But if Byrd is parochial, his province extends from the Appalachians to the Capitol.
FRIEND OF THE FILIBUSTER
Few, if any, lawmakers can rival Byrd’s knowledge of the institution and its power bases. He published a 3,000-page, four-volume history of the chamber between 1989 and 1994. He has long been involved in the central debate over the chamber’s rules: whether a minority should be allowed to block Senate action.
In 1975, he preserved the filibuster in the face of liberal opposition by hammering out a compromise that pared the number of senators needed to end debate. Thirty years later, as conservatives clamored to obliterate the filibuster as it relates to judicial nominees, he helped forged an agreement with a bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators to protect its use.
“There’s a lot of deference to him,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a junior member of the group. “Usually he has the final word.”
Byrd acknowledges that he will never be able to escape his membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
“The Klan albatross is a mistake which has haunted me throughout my political career, and it will undoubtedly be prominently referred to in my obituaries,” he wrote.
But a new generation of liberal Democrats has embraced Byrd as a critic of the Bush administration and the Iraq war.
Last year, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the only black senator, made a fundraising pitch for him through the liberal group MoveOn.org. Obama said last week that Byrd embodies racial reconciliation.
“He was reflective of his age, and his attitudes now signal an enormous transformation in America,” Obama said.
Byrd’s wife, Erma Ora Byrd, died in March, about two months shy of their 69th wedding anniversary.
On Friday, Byrd paid tribute to her on the Senate floor: “Could I have made this journey without her? Could I have accomplished as much as I have accomplished — whatever that may have been — without her? I think not. The more important point is that I did it with Erma, and I would not have had it any other way.”