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Monday, June 28, 2010

Longest-Serving U.S. Senator, Dies at 92

Robert Byrd, the 92-year-old West Virginia Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate for 51 years, died Monday.

A family spokesman said Mr. Byrd died peacefully at about 3 a.m. at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va. At first Mr. Byrd was believed to be suffering from heat exhaustion and severe dehydration, but other medical conditions developed. He had been in failing health for several years.

A master of Senate procedures and orator whose Stentorian tones aimed to evoke the roots of the republic (if not Rome), Mr. Byrd served longer, voted more frequently, and probably used the arcane Senate rules to more effect than any previous denizen of the nation's senior legislative house.

Mr. Byrd inhabited numerous roles in a life that took him from a childhood in the coalfields of West Virginia to Senate Majority Leader. In his early years, he was a gas-station attendant, a welder, and self-taught butcher, then a West Virginia state legislator.

After he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1952, his political positions veered widely between the now almost extinct Southern conservative Democrats of mid-century to that of the more conventional liberal of today. But his reputation never rested on ideology, but rather on his persuasiveness, his sheer effort, and occasionally, his willingness to filibuster.

Most salient were the twin images of a Washington stalwart.

First was the self-appointed champion of the Constitution, brandishing his breast-pocket copy of the government's foundational document on the Senate floor while inveighing against usurpation of the Senate's powers by the executive branch.

Second was the crafty legislative pro with one hand in the pork barrel, the Democratic majority leader and Appropriations committee chair who managed to slip into legislation so many programs benefiting his state that more than 30 federally funded buildings were named after him.

A senator starting in 1959, Mr. Byrd at first voted the conservative southern Democratic line. He strongly opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He likened antipoverty measures to rent supplements, and voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that set the stage for U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Yet by the late 1970s, when he was first named Senate Majority Leader, the one-time kleagle in the Ku Klux Klan had moderated his position on social issues to the point where he favored the Equal Rights Amendment.

When Mr. Byrd voted against measures authorizing both the Gulf War in 1990 and the invasion of Iraq in 2002, it was on the grounds that the Senate was giving up its constitutional power to declare war. In later years, he called his Gulf of Tonkin vote a "mistake" and a "sin."

Raised by impoverished relatives after his mother died in the 1917 global flu pandemic, Mr. Byrd worked at blue-collar jobs before being elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1947. His talents an orator had emerged even earlier as he drew crowds as a lay Baptist preacher. He liked to entertain the crowds who came to see him campaign by playing bluegrass numbers like "Cripple Creek" on his fiddle.

Mr. Byrd was wildly popular in West Virginia, but his membership in the Ku Kux Klan in the 1940s became a campaign issue when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952. He managed to get elected after explaining away his "mistake of youth." (Continues here)

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