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Robert C. Byrd, 1917-2010

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

Robert C. Byrd, a poor child from West Virginia coal country who became the longest-serving member of Congress in history"and for decades one of Washington's most powerful figures"died Monday. He was 92.

Byrd's life followed the arc of American history from the bleakness of the Great Depression to the nation's unparalleled prestige after World War II, through the controversies over civil rights and Vietnam, and ultimately to the inauguration of the first black president. None served in more leadership posts, cast more votes, brought a deeper knowledge of history to his politics or demonstrated a more fierce dedication to bringing billions in federal largesse to the backwaters and byways of an impoverished, rural state that he loved. "We know what poverty is. We're not ashamed of it," Byrd told a CNN interviewer in 2006. "I'm a hillbilly, glad of it."

Few public figures have traveled a political path that took as many provocative turns as Byrd's.

He was the only member of the U.S. Senate to have voted against the two African Americans who have served on the Supreme Court, opposing both the liberal civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall and conservative stalwart Clarence Thomas. He worked against John F. Kennedy in the crucial West Virginia Democratic primary of 1960, when Kennedy's Catholicism was the paramount issue. Yet Byrd went on to develop a deep friendship and strong working relationship with the slain president's brother Ted over the decades they served together in Congress.

Byrd opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and carried out a 14-hour filibuster before it finally passed. Nearly half a century later, the senator endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 West Virginia primary, calling Obama "a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian."

Wartime hawk to dove

Byrd was vilified by opponents of the Vietnam War because of his hawkish views and unwavering loyalty to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Yet in the twilight of his career, Byrd became an unlikely hero for antiwar activists when, on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he made a series of riveting Senate speeches against U.S. military involvement. As recently as April, Byrd argued on the liberal online news site Huffington Post for a thorough investigation of torture and other controversial techniques used in the Bush administration's anti-terror programs.

Though in his last months Byrd was frail and ill, some of his notable achievements came as he grew old. He received his bachelor's degree, summa cum laude, from Marshall University when he was 77. He'd already earned a law degree"after 10 years of night classes"from American University in 1963 (then-President Kennedy handed him his diploma). Billions of dollars secured for West Virginia were to expand access to health care in the state's most isolated counties, and for research into Alzheimer's disease.

Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. in North Carolina, but his mother died when the child was a year old. As his mother had wished, he was sent to live in West Virginia with one of her sisters, Vlurma Sale Byrd and her husband, Titus Byrd. The couple lived in Algonquin, where Byrd's adoptive father worked the mines, and the future senator would be shaped by the trials of poverty and rural isolation"and by the authoritarian ways of absentee corporations that owned the coal mines and extracted the state's riches from them.

Byrd's political career began just after World War II "he had worked as a shipyard welder"when he was elected in 1946 to a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates. By then he had married his high school sweetheart, Erma Ora James. The couple was married 69 years, until Erma's death in 2006.

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.