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Robert C. Byrd, 1917-2010

Senator became longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history

Senator Robert Byrd

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., reacts upon winning his record ninth term. — Jeff Gentner/AP Photo

One career-haunting decision

In the years leading up to that first bid for office, Byrd made a political choice that would haunt his career.

Lured by what he later described as a youthful fascination with a parade of white-robed marchers, and coupled with the knowledge that many of the “best” people—doctors, lawyers, business owners, judges and politicians—were members, Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan and recruited others. In his autobiography, the senator cites a Klan Grand Dragon as being the first to tell him he had an instinct for politics and a talent for leadership. “I was only twenty-three or twenty-four years old, and the thought of a political career had never struck me,” Byrd wrote. “But strike me that night, it did.”

Byrd renounced his Klan membership, but he would always be questioned about the association. He came to see it as evidence of “what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career and reputation.”

Above all, a champion for West Virginia

As he climbed through the political ranks, first serving in the House of Representatives and then, after his election to the Senate in 1958, there was one issue on which Byrd never wavered: his indefatigable pursuit of federal money for his state.

Byrd’s name is affixed to countless highways, bridges, terminals, schools, campus buildings, community centers, parks and preserves—testimony to his expertise in using the levers of power to prime the pump.

In his zeal, Byrd earned the ire of good-government groups and media watchdogs. One of them, the Citizens Against Government Waste, calculated that from 1991 to 2006, Byrd had directed $2.95 billion to an array of state projects including 33 named after himself. They included the Robert C. Byrd Highway, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope and the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center. He was unbowed: “I owed the big city cynics nothing,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I owed the national media skeptics nothing. Nothing!”

Passion for history

As if in counterpoint to the prosaic work of pork-barreling, the other mark of Byrd’s tenure was his brilliance as a self-taught historian. He used his profound knowledge of classical and Western history with a flourish in Senate debates. In one memorable exchange he recounted in his autobiography, he countered proponents of a balanced-budget amendment by quoting from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the Biblical story of Elijah, the Book of Exodus, and two tales of the ancient general Hannibal’s battle campaigns. Byrd also carried a copy of the Constitution in his suit pocket, reading from it at key moments—often to guard congressional prerogatives and warn of the dangers of presidential overreach.

Byrd in recent years lamented the media’s short attention span and lack of interest in policy details, as well as what he suggested was his fellow senators’ shallow motives. To say that contemporary politics cannot replace him is a judgment with which Byrd would likely agree.

Marie Cocco is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Sydicate.

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