It was easy to mock Sen. Robert Byrd, with his overwrought speeches and his unabashed pursuit of federal dollars for West Virginia. What the longtime senator should be remembered for, however, is his devotion to the Senate and its rules, as enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. Those rules led the body through the civil rights era, wars and other contentious times. They remain relevant today as shouting and partisan posturing threaten not just legislation but our national discourse.
Sen. Byrd, who died Monday at the age of 92, was the longest-serving member of Congress.
When his mother died during the 1918-19 influenza epidemic the then 10-month-old boy was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Stotesbury, W.Va. He grew up in coal mining towns and was the valedictorian of his high school class. He married at 19, worked as a gas station attendant and butcher before working as a welder at a shipyard in Baltimore during World War II.
After the war, he returned to West Virginia where he opened a grocery store and began preaching fiery sermons that were broadcast on a local radio station.
He was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946 and the state Senate in 1950.
Sen. Byrd was elected to Congress in 1952, despite the revelation of his earlier membership in the Ku Klux Klan, which he later called “the greatest mistake of my life.” He moved to the U.S. Senate in 1958.
Despite never attending college, he earned a law degree by attending night classes while serving in Congress. He peppered his Senate speeches with poetry and references to the Roman Empire, the Bible and Greek history and was an accomplished fiddle player.
A conservative Democrat, he filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opposed poverty programs. He later softened his stance and supported later civil rights legislation and a bill making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday.
Sen. Byrd was twice Senate majority leader and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Called the “king of pork,” he directed billions of federal dollars to West Virginia. More than 30 buildings and roads there bear his name.
During his 51 years in the Senate, Sen. Byrd frequently reminded his colleagues of their constitutional duties. In 2003, he chastised them for allowing the president to declare war against Iraq, when it was Congress that was given this duty under the Constitution.
Sen. Olympia Snowe recalled Sen. Byrd giving copies of the document to her and other members trying to find a compromise to move forward with judicial nominations. “With one symbolic gesture as only he could, Sen. Byrd spoke volumes about the historic imperative that was ours to seize if we were to jettison the partisanship that threatened our chamber,” Sen. Snowe said in a statement Monday.
Sen. Byrd had a lot of faults, but upholding the Senate’s “historic imperative” is a legacy that must live on.