Briefly met Robert Byrd what seems like 1 million years ago when I was a technician servicing computer equipment on the Hill in my first job in the computer industry. Was working on some equipment in his office when he walked in, and unlike a lot of pols, said hello. This was the 70’s, and the country was still in a turmoil, told him my Dad was from West Virginia coal mining country, and remember asking him if he was related to the Virginia Byrds, a political dynasty which held sway in Virginia for near 60 years. He said something to the extent of “no, they don’t claim us – we’re the poor hillbilly coal miner Byrds”.
West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, the self-educated son of a coal miner who became the longest-serving member of Congress, died early Monday at age 92, the senator’s office said.
Byrd, a nine-term Democrat, was known as a master of the chamber’s often-arcane rules and as the self-proclaimed “champion of the Constitution,” a jealous guardian of congressional power.
His speeches were laced with references to poetry and the Greek and Roman classics, often punctuated by the brandishing of his pocket copy of the national charter.
He was also known as the “King of Pork,” using top positions on the Senate Appropriations Committee to steer federal spending to his home state — one of the nation’s poorest.
Byrd relished the title.
“Pork, to the critic, is service to the people who enjoy some of the good things in life, and I’ve been happy to bring to West Virginia the projects to which they refer. I have no apology for it,” he said.
He was an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, calling his 2002 vote against a “blind and improvident” authorization of military action the proudest moment of his career…
Robert Carlyle Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. on November 20, 1917, in the North Carolina town of North Wilkesboro. His mother died when he was a year old, and he was adopted and renamed by his aunt and uncle, Titus and Vlurma Byrd.
He started his political career by running for the state House of Delegates in 1946, while working as a butcher and welder. He won a seat in the House of Representatives six years later, was elected to his first Senate term in 1958 and won his ninth in 2006, three weeks shy of his 89th birthday.
“If it’s the Lord’s will, the people will send me there. Why? This Constitution needs a champion,” he said before the 2006 vote.
As the senior senator of the majority party, Byrd served as the Senate’s president pro tempore — third in line of presidential succession, behind the vice president and speaker of the House.
While he set two endurance records in Congress, he was only proud of one in the end. The other was for his 1964 filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, when he spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes in an effort to derail the law.
He opposed civil rights when he first ran for office, a stance he came to regret later in life. He blamed “that Southern atmosphere in which I grew up, with all of its prejudices and its feelings,” for his opposition to equal rights, which included joining the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s.
He called the move “the greatest mistake of my life,” an “albatross” that would always shadow his career.
“It’s a lesson to the young people of today, that once a major mistake has been made in one’s life,” he said, “it will always be there, and it will be in my obituary.”