Lionized in Winter

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"Eventually, the truth will emerge. And when it does, this house of cards, built of deceit, will fall." — Robert C. Byrd

In the history of the republic, 11,707 men and women have served in Congress. Only two have held office longer than Robert Byrd, first elected to the House in 1952 and the Senate in '58. He has been around long enough to have served with a Connecticut Brahmin named Prescott Bush, the President's grandfather. With his white hair, benign tremor and penchant for quoting the Romans, Byrd seems more like a Senator from the 19th century than one from the 21st. He has never seen MTV. He refers to the camera in the Senate chamber as "the eee-leck-tronic eye." But due to his fierce opposition to the Iraq war, Byrd at 85 has become an Internet icon with a rash of young and liberal admirers, which is ironic given that Byrd fought civil rights in the '60s and, as is often noted, briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan. Once known as a hawk ("I was the last man out of Vietnam," he says), Byrd has become the Senate's new Paul Wellstone.

The Byrd renaissance began on Feb. 12, 35 days before the first bombs fell on Baghdad, when he rose on the Senate floor to rail against the looming conflict. While other Senators muted their criticism, Byrd derided President Bush as "reckless and arrogant." He also denounced his fellow Democrats: "This chamber is, for the most part, silent — ominously, dreadfully, silent." Byrd's words lit up the Internet. Wes Boyd, the head of MoveOn.org, a liberal group that opposed the war, received 15 copies of the speech from fellow activists in 72 hours after it was delivered. "It's the way stump speeches were delivered generations ago," says Boyd. "It was tacked on a wall and a crowd gathered to read it. And it got bigger and bigger." In January, Byrd's website got just 436,000 hits; in March, 3.7 million.


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Just last week Byrd drew another Internet throng, declaring that Bush had lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and would get caught: "This house of cards, built of deceit, will fall." The attention has made Byrd a prime target of the right. The conservative site NewsMax.com includes Byrd in its Deck of Weasels playing cards, along with Susan Sarandon. Rush Limbaugh labels the Senator's talks "Byrd droppings."

To understand Byrd, though, you have to understand his love of history, from devouring classics to penning tomes about the American and Roman Senates. When John Kennedy Jr. asked Byrd to list his summer reading for his magazine George, Byrd included such page turners as The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.

For Byrd, history not only teaches the importance of rules and precedent but also offers warnings for the present. Deviation from democratic process can, he says, cloak an attempt "to dominate all branches of government." For that reason, Byrd says, "this Republic is at its greatest danger in its history because of this Administration." He cites as an example the Bush Administration's efforts to seek greater discretionary defense spending free of congressional scrutiny. That doesn't sound so alarming, but for Byrd precedent is everything. And everything about the Iraq war — from the radical new doctrine of military pre-emption to the Administration's failure to offer an estimate of the war's cost — ate at Byrd's sense of tradition. Conservatives and liberals who think he's a peacenik miss the point. With Byrd, the rules aren't picayune but the bricks of democracy. His legendary 98.74% voting record grows out of his faith that every vote matters, even when it's merely procedural. For him, God — and the Republic — is in the details.

And why not? Obsession with process has made Byrd a god in West Virginia; his mastery of appropriations has funneled billions to the perennially poor state. While Al Gore lost the state in 2000, Byrd won all but seven of its 1,970 precincts. Senators, too, admire his command, seeking him out like a somewhat eccentric sage. When Bill Frist ascended to Byrd's old post as majority leader, the two met for two hours. Hillary Clinton comes by for advice.

While Beltway types often dismiss Byrd as a fossil, his anachronistic style is bracing, especially at a time when the Republican-led Senate is considering revamping the filibuster rules to smooth the path of Bush's judicial nominees. Like anyone who has seen Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Byrd knows the filibuster can be used for good and for ill and is better left alone. "It may irritate us. It may irk us, but it's stood the test of time," Byrd declares. He could well be talking about himself.