Death of a Statesman

June 28, 2010

Senator Robert Carlyle Byrd 1917-2010

West Virginia Senator Robert Carlyle Byrd died this morning at the age of 92 after being hospitalized  for what was thought to be heat exhaustion. He was the longest serving member of the U.S. Congress in history, serving over 50 years in the Senate. Senator Byrd was the Senate majority leader for six years, and also served twice as the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senator Byrd was third in line for succession  to the presidency as president pro tem of the Senate. Now Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) assumes the post of the president pro tem.

He was elected to both the West Virginia House and Senate, and the U.S. House and US Senate. When he was a member of the U.S. House, he took college courses at night and received a law degree from American University. He carried a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket.

Senator Byrd cast over 18,500 votes while serving in the Senate. He was famed for his lengthy speeches and was called the conscience of the Senate.

From the Washington Post:
Starting in 1958, Mr. Byrd was elected to the Senate an unprecedented nine times. He wrote a four-volume history of the body, was majority leader twice and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, controlling the nation's purse strings, and yet the positions of influence he held did not convey the astonishing arc of his life.

A child of the West Virginia coal fields, Mr. Byrd rose from the grinding poverty that has plagued his state since before the Great Depression, overcame an early and ugly association with the Ku Klux Klan, worked his way through night school and by force of will, determination and iron discipline made himself a person of authority and influence in Washington.

...On March 19, 2003, Mr. Byrd delivered the first of what became regular attacks on the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. "Today I weep for my country," he said in a speech on the Senate floor. "I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed."
Senator Byrd voted against the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 that attempted to prohibit discrimination. Later in his life he admitted that action was wrong and said that his membership in the Ku Klux Klan was the a terrible mistake: "I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."

The Democratic governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin III, will appoint someone to complete Senator Byrd's term in the Senate which ends in 2013.

Fellow West Virginian, Congressman Nick Rahall III, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, issued this Statement on the Passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd:
"Over the next several days, the pundits will try to sum up in limited words the life of Senator Byrd. They will fall far short. We will hear about structures that bear his name, about records he set, about votes he cast. And none of those measures will come close to capturing the enormity that was Robert C. Byrd. I do not know how to begin trying to calculate his immense influence on the People of this Nation and the People of West Virginia; perhaps because so much of what he gave to us is beyond measure -- wisdom, reason, hope. We will not see the likes of a Robert C. Byrd pass our way again.”

"He was a defender of the Constitution, a champion of the Senate. He was West Virginia's greatest ally, her faithful son, a source of tremendous pride, and our Big Daddy. He was a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a constant source of inspiration. And he was my friend. I will miss him always. My wife Melinda and I extend our heartfelt condolences to his daughters and sons-in-law, his grandchildren, and his wonderful great-grandchildren. We offer our prayers to them along with our never-ending thanks for sharing his extraordinary life with a grateful State and Nation. I hope that they will be comforted by knowing that he has joined his beloved Erma in Heaven."
Senator Byrd's wife of 69 years, Erma passed away in 2006.

Video of Senator Byrd speaking on his service in the U.S. Senate on November 19, 2009: