For more than a third of its 144-year existence, the state of West Virginia was represented in the U.S. Senate by one man: Robert C. Byrd. So encompassing was Byrd's 50 years of service in the Senate and so encyclopedic his institutional knowledge that by the time he died early Monday morning he had become not just the political personification of West Virginia in the nation's capital, but the embodiment and ambassador of the Senate itself to the rest of the country. Byrd was admitted to the hospital last week for dehydration, and his condition worsened over the weekend as he became critically ill. Twice its majority leader, a master of its all-powerful rules and a fierce defender of its prerogatives, Byrd was as much a part of the place as the wooden desks, steep-sloped galleries and soaring speeches that filled it. Byrd was 92.
Raised by impoverished coal-mining relatives in depression-era Appalachia after his mother died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, Byrd showed an early gift for two things: self-education and rhetorical charm. He taught himself butchery as a young adult to get ahead in the grocery business, and later trained himself to become a successful impromptu preacher. The latter skill more than the former paved the way for his election first to the state house as a Democrat in 1946, then to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952 and finally to the Senate in 1958. Unable to afford college early in life, he took night courses in the late '40s and earned his law degree over 10 years of part-time study after he arrived in Washington, D.C.
It was during the 1952 race that his opponent revealed Byrd had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the early '40s. Byrd quickly dismissed the membership as a "mistake of youth." He later helped filibuster what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, giving a near record 14-hour speech, and he opposed the 1965 voting-rights bill. Voting 56% of the time with conservatives in the late 1960s, Byrd's name was floated as a Supreme Court nominee during the Nixon presidency. After ousting Ted Kennedy as Democratic whip in 1971, he moderated his positions in line with the party's mainstream. Having supported the military buildup in Vietnam, by 2003 he was among the most outspoken Senators against the invasion of Iraq.
If Byrd's political positions changed over the years, his dedication to lavish government spending never did. As chairman or ranking member of the check-writing Appropriations Committee from 1989 to 1995, he steered so much pork to West Virginia that by one count there were fully 30 current or pending federal projects bearing his name there. He brought satellite offices of federal agencies such as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to the state. With bridges, tunnels, dams and highways he connected the famously tough-to-navigate terrain. It was his ability to send federal funds to the state that led to victory margins topping 70% late in his career when he faced any opposition at all.
Byrd's role in the Senate was colorful and effective. He was known for long orations laden with historical references. During periods of Senate downtime, he took the floor to read the entirety of a history of the Roman Senate he authored so that it would be in the official record of the U.S. Congress. He also wrote a well-received four-volume history of the U.S. Senate with the chamber's in-house historian and a more polemical attack on President George W. Bush, Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.
By the latter part of his career Byrd so personified the institution that he was in some ways viewed by his colleagues more as part of it than as one of them. He was known as a loner, courtly and respected, to be sure, but also occasionally high-handed, defensive and pedantic. But even brash freshmen came, as sophomores, to appreciate Byrd's staunch defense of the institution. When Byrd walked arm in arm with Virginia's five-term Senator John Warner through the corridors of the Russell Senate Office Building after defusing an attack on the Senate filibuster rule in early 2005, it was easy to feel as if the chamber itself had risen up to defend its role as the place where issues that enflame popular emotion are taken for cool and considered debate.