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Longest serving senator in U.S., Sen. Robert Byrd, dies at 92

Robert Byrd held more leadership positions than any senator. He also was known for bringing the bacon to West Virginia.

Associated Press

Robert Byrd held more leadership positions than any senator. He also was known for bringing the bacon to West Virginia.

Sen. Robert Byrd was very much a man of his turbulent era and a man of West Virginia, able to dramatically influence and shape policy for more than half a century while bestowing billions on his beloved state.

He died Monday after a short hospitalization in Washington's Virginia suburbs. He was 92.

On one level, the life of Mr. Byrd, who served longer than any U.S. senator, is a classic story of a successful American politician, raised in hardscrabble Appalachian coal country, a onetime butcher, gas station attendant and Ku Klux Klansman who rose to become one of Washington's most powerful figures.

He was the most nimble of politicians, a man who once filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for more than 14 hours, but later became a vocal, influential advocate for the underprivileged.

"He grew with the times, and made a fairly radical transformation," said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

On another level, the fiery Democrat was, as Senate associate historian Don Ritchie put it, "a real Senate institution and an institutional man," one who mastered the nuances of the chamber like no one of his era.

"I'd call him the Senate's most dependable authority on the Constitution of the United States," said former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., who served with Byrd from 1963 to 1981. "It's almost as if he memorized the whole thing."

His ability to master the Senate's rules, however, as well as his largesse to his home state and often dour public demeanor, opened him to criticism he was too ingrained in the clubby, insulated ways of official Washington.

Mr. Byrd held more leadership positions than any senator, serving at various times as Senate majority or minority leader, chairman of its Appropriations Committee, which makes key spending decisions, and finally president pro tempore, or third in line for the presidency.

He was born Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C., as Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died when he was 1, and he was raised by Titus and Vlurma Byrd, an uncle and aunt whom Mr. Byrd recalled were "very poor," as Titus worked in a coal mine in southern West Virginia. They renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd. He graduated first in his high school class.

He won his first public office in 1946, when he was elected to the state House of Delegates, and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952.

He enrolled in American University's law school during his first year in Washington — and would graduate 10 years later.

Vice President Joe Biden recalled how, after he'd just been elected to the Senate from Delaware in 1972 and his wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident a few weeks later, Mr. Byrd sat quietly in the back of the funeral service after waiting two hours in the rain to get in. "He didn't even know me," Biden recalled. "I was just a young kid."

Mr. Byrd made his mark in more public ways, as a bridge between the slow Senate ways of doing business and the 21st century. He pushed to bring television cameras into the Senate in 1986, and would often use slow days to give lengthy speeches on the history of the institution.

At the same time, he wrote a four-volume history of the Senate, rarely held televised news conferences and frowned on senators he caught using BlackBerrys on the Senate floor.

He helped shepherd through Congress the notable legislation of the day: the 1978 Panama Canal treaty and the 1986 tax system overhaul, among others.

Scholars often decry his lack of bold initiatives, however.

"His chief strategy was to acquire power. He doesn't have a good legislative monument anyone would recognize," said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Except this: "He was a one-man stimulus program for the state of West Virginia," Baker said.

Mr. Byrd stepped down from his leadership post in 1989, among some grumbling from newer members that he wasn't offering an appealing public message or image, to become appropriations chairman.

Fast facts

No election till '12

The person who gets picked to fill Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd's seat won't have to face an election until 2012, a key decision for Democrats nationally trying to hold onto a slim majority in Congress after November's elections. West Virginia officials scrambled Monday to study election laws and a 1994 state Supreme Court ruling, and determined that whoever Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin appoints will be able to serve out nearly all of the remainder of Byrd's six-year term, which ends after the 2012 elections. Republicans wanted an election this fall when 36 Senate seats are already on the ballot, but doubted they would challenge Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's decision.

Associated Press

Longest serving senator in U.S., Sen. Robert Byrd, dies at 92 06/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 28, 2010 11:39pm]
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