Robert Carlyle Byrd, November 20, 1917 – June 28, 2010

June 28, 2010, 10:46 am

Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) has died at the age of 92. For the report in the Charleston Gazette go here.

Byrd anchored the conservative wing of the party for decades, but also came to hold many liberal positions, including a profound belief that the federal government had an obligation to end poverty and guarantee full citizenship. From the New York Times:
He had been in failing health for several years. Mr. Byrd served 51 years in the Senate, longer than anyone in American history, and with his six years in the House, he was the longest-serving member of Congress. He held a number of Senate offices, including majority and minority leader and president pro tem.

But the post that gave him the most satisfaction was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, with its power of the purse — a post he gave up only last year as his health declined. A New Deal Democrat, Mr. Byrd used the position in large part to battle persistent poverty in West Virginia, which he called “one of the rock bottomest of states.”

Byrd’s journey — from orphan (his parents died in the 1918 flu pandemic), to his racist past as a Klansman (he was elected to lead his Klavern in 1942), to one of the most powerful Senators of the twentieth century — hits every theme of political history, and ever moment of social and cultural transformation, since World War II. Byrd’s Klan membership — something he regretted deeply in later years, both because it was used against him politically and because his views changed, provides an interesting insight that some historian ought to run with if s/he can find enough people to talk openly about their Klan membership. Racism provided a path to social mobility, civic membership and prominence for talented and ambitious white men born without advantages and education. As he explained in his autobiography, Child of the Appalachian Coal Fields, Byrd understood this period in his life as a time where he both acted on a dangerously bigoted world view and as a misdirected effort to demonstrate his abilities and capacity for citizenship. As he put it, he “was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision—a jejune and immature outlook—seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.”

Self-educated, he was one of the Senate’s finest orators, and a sparkling example of what that body used to be famous for. I occasionally tuned in to C-Span when I knew he was on the floor, just to listen and to absorb techniques that could be translated into good teaching: dramatic pauses, modulating one’s voice for emphasis or to force the audience to listen more closely, telling a story rather than making a complicated argument. Byrd had a particularly dramatic flourish, where he would whip a ragged, red-covered copy of the Constitution out of his vest pocket and shake it at his audience for emphasis. Loved that. And in his later years, when he used his prominence to oppose the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s grab for absolute power, he was one of the first and the few to tell the unvarnished truth. “This house of cards, built of deceit, will fall,” he growled in 2003, when information began to surface that the administration had lied about weapons of mass destruction and material support for Al-Quaeda in Iraq.

Byrd’s distinctly Southern talent for speechifying came to prominence in 1964, when he filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act through the night, ending this 14 hour marathon at 9:51 A.M. on June 10. For the first time in history, a filibuster on a civil rights bill was defeated as liberals in both parties joined together to decisively change American history. According to the Senate’s official history,

The clerk proceeded to call the roll. When he reached “Mr. Engle,” there was no response. A brain tumor had robbed California’s mortally ill Clair Engle of his ability to speak. Slowly lifting a crippled arm, he pointed to his eye, thereby signaling his affirmative vote. Few of those who witnessed this heroic gesture ever forgot it. When Delaware’s John Williams provided the decisive 67th vote, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield exclaimed, “That’s it!”; Richard Russell slumped; and Hubert Humphrey beamed. With six wavering senators providing a four-vote victory margin, the final tally stood at 71 to 29. Nine days later the Senate approved the act itself—producing one of the 20th century’s towering legislative achievements.

Byrd became a strong supporter of civil rights and equal access to citizenship over the subsequent half century: a month ago, his office announced that he would support the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
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