Skip to comments.Byrd set to become longest-serving senator
Posted on 06/06/2006 10:26:21 AM PDT by presidio9
Robert Byrd intends to mark the day he becomes the longest-serving U.S. senator next week much as he has the others in the last half century -- by working.
"Records are fine," said Byrd, a Democrat who has held a number of Senate leadership posts. "But what's important is what I do for the people of West Virginia. They are the ones who sent me here 48 years ago."
At 88, Byrd looks frail and walks with two canes. Yet he remains one of the most respected voices in Congress and a passionate defender of the U.S. Constitution. He evolved from being a young member of the Ku Klux Klan to a white-haired advocate of civil rights and an opponent of the Iraq war who has drawn praise from liberals.
He is on track to set the record for Senate longevity on Monday, which would be his 17,327th day in office. That would pass the mark by South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, who retired in 2003 at 100, which made him the oldest senator too.
Will Byrd ever reach that mark as well?
"I have no idea. The Lord could call me home tonight," he said, seated in his office near photos of his wife of 68 years, Erma, who died in March.
"I love to serve. I love the Senate. I love the Constitution. If I could live another 100 years, I'd like to continue in the Senate," he said.
Byrd is running for re-election in November to an unprecedented ninth, six-year term against Republican John Raese, a successful businessman.
While Byrd is expected to win, critics have tried to portray him as out of touch with his state. His age could hurt him if he makes a verbal or physical stumble.
Said Byrd: "The people of West Virginia have never let me down, and I intend to never let them down."
DOLLARS FOR DISTRICT
Byrd was first elected to the Senate in 1958 after six years in the House of Representatives. He was Democratic leader from 1977 to 1988, and he lets presidents know where he stands.
"I'm not any president's man. I'm a Senate's man," the independent-minded icon told them.
As the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd has helped direct billions of dollars in federal money to his chronically poor state.
This has drawn scorn from critics, who accuse him of wasting money on pet projects, yet adulation from constituents for what they see as basics like roads, bridges and hospitals.
Asked to name his top achievement, Byrd said: "I take great pride in having articulated over the years a love of this country's basic document, the Constitution."
"I have tried to imbue others with the same feeling," said Byrd, who carries a copy of the Constitution in his pocket and often pulls it out during Senate debates.
"Nothing has ever been written like it before or since. It's responsible for every liberty, every freedom, we have," Byrd said.
His passion for the Constitution, oratory and legislative skills have won notice. "Robert Byrd, the senior member of the United States Senate, may come closer to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other," the Almanac of American Politics said.
"He comes from the humblest of beginnings, and when first elected to the Senate ... he was scarcely noticed. Now he is ... an authentic power..."
Byrd's hands shake as result of a nonlife-threatening condition that forced him to put down the fiddle, which he learned to play while growing up dirt poor in the coal fields.
But he can still deliver a fiery speech as arguably the Senate's top orator, particularly when taking on President George W. Bush over the Iraq war or the administration's domestic spying program.
Byrd said early on he admired Bush. "I told Erma, 'I think he's going to be a uniter, not a divider.' That's what he said he would be," Byrd recalled.
"But my hopes have not been fulfilled," said Byrd, who wrote a 2004 bestseller: "Losing America: Confronting a reckless and arrogant presidency."
Byrd's once conservative views have moderated with age.
Of the more than 17,500 votes Byrd has cast, he said his biggest regret was opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a landmark law that brought down barriers to black Americans.
Byrd's opposition -- he said he had constitutional concerns -- followed his brief membership in the Ku Klux Klan while in his 20s, which he later called a youthful mistake.
He said his views changed most dramatically after his teen-age grandson was killed in a 1982 traffic accident that the senator said put him in a deep emotional valley.
"The death of my grandson caused me to stop and think," said Byrd, adding he came to realize that black people love their children as much as he does his.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave Byrd a 100 percent rating for his votes in the last Congress.
Reflecting on his career, Byrd recalled his dealings with 11 presidents over the years, watching the nation grow from 48 to 50 states and seeing the Senate become more partisan.
Byrd also remembered sending word to an inquiring President Richard Nixon in 1971 that he did not want to be considered for the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I couldn't see myself sitting around reading briefs," Byrd said. "I like being in the midst of things. I like to legislate. I feel I've done a lot of good."
He started serving just after he left the KKK.
well past his prime.
He's a Grand Wizard...
Good, He needs to retire.
...or at least to make it seem just as long....
He best be careful, I think someone else has him on speed-dial.
In his recent book, he actually had the nerve to whitewash the KKK as if they were the rotary club.
thank God....he is enough trouble where he is
Actually - he also filibustered it several times - and voted against like so many of his democrat colleges.
I hope he wears clean sheets.
Hmmm. Wonder if the state is chronically poor because federal handouts and cronyism have helped to drive out private enterprise and capitalism.
"the esteemed Historian of the Senate"
Maybe he'd like to whip it out and show us where the Constitution authorizes the senators to vote billions in pork for themselves.
I hope he asks Trent Lott to give some testimonials...
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