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Sen. Byrd Basks in Boston

Ending a self-imposed exile from Democratic conventions, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) stormed into Boston this week, urging voters to run President Bush out of office and chart a new course for the nation with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at the helm.

More than 700 people packed a sweltering Harvard Square church on Tuesday to hear the 86-year-old Senator denounce Bush’s stewardship of the country as part of a tour to promote his new book, “Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.”

“It is important for you to go out and be a warrior for freedom,” Byrd bellowed from the church pulpit, accentuating his speech with periodic thrusts of his fist into the air. On Monday, he delivered the same message to another group of 700 in New York.

Democratic hometown hero Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) joined Byrd at the church as the two unabashed liberals described Bush’s decision to wage war against Iraq as a failed mission. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark also feted Byrd for his view on the Iraq war.

While Byrd’s Southern drawl clashed with Kennedy’s distinct Yankee dialect at the event, the Senate’s unofficial historian appeared at home in the nation’s “Cradle of Liberty.”

Byrd said he chose to attend this year’s convention — his first since 1988 — because he believes that the current administration is leading the country in the wrong direction.

“Paul Revere woke up Concord and I wanted to wake up this country and to wake up this Senate,” Byrd said in an extensive interview last week before heading north to Boston. “It has been eating on me — it has been something that has burned in me.”

“I’ve got a sick wife, but I believe in this as I believe in this,” Byrd added, pulling a pocket-sized Constitution from his breast pocket and grasping his new book with his left hand. He repeated the gesture at the church book signing.

The loquacious West Virginian described Bush as “dangerous, reckless and arrogant” and accused the president of coming to Washington “unprepared to be president” during the interview in his Capitol Hill office.

He questioned the former Texas governor’s use of U.S. military personnel to rally support for the war, including the president’s dramatic landing on an aircraft carrier in 2003. The event produced the phrase “Mission Accomplished” and was supposed to signal the end of major military operations in Iraq.

“Every time I saw him before a crowd, it seems as though he has always had the National Guard and the flags were out all marching to the tune of the commander in chief,” he said.

But Byrd does not reserve his criticism just for Bush; he turned his furor on his Democratic colleagues and the news media as well for failing to aggressively question the administration’s “rush to war.”

“I am just saddened at the state that I find the Senate in at this time in history, when it ought to be the strongest,” he said. “It has been very disappointing — not only with the administration but also with Congress and the media.”

Byrd charged that the Senate was “mute” on the issue at the time Bush was preparing and his advisers were making plans to invade Iraq.

“I would walk up in the Senate and there was nobody there,” he said of Senators who declined to use the Senate floor as a national soapbox to express their concerns about the war. He also accused his colleagues, particularly Republicans, of bowing to Bush pressure to cede “power of the purse” to his administration.

“Bright people, people who have a head full of sense — lay down the sword and shield and walk away if their president snaps his finger and tells them to do that,” he said. “I would never do that.”

Even before U.S. troops landed on the Middle Eastern nation’s soil and drove Saddam Hussein from power, Byrd had been outspoken on Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. At one time, Democrats privately expressed concern about Byrd’s vocal stand against the war, fearing it would cast their party as unpatriotic with swing voters in the November elections. But with growing concerns that Bush does not have a strategy to leave Iraq, Democrats are embracing Byrd’s message.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he witnessed Byrd’s emergence as one of the pre-eminent national figures on the Iraq issue.

“I have people come up to me in the city of Chicago talking about Bob Byrd,” Durbin said. “My favorite story is when I was in church one Sunday with my wife. I came back from the communion and I was kneeling down and an older fellow walked by me and he leaned over and said, ‘Stick with Bob Byrd.’”

But Republicans questioned the timing of Byrd’s decision to release of the book now, suggesting that it is just another political tool to try and help elect Kerry.

“It is interesting timing,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). “Here we are on the eve of an election that he would put in writing what he has been saying for the last four years.”

But Byrd scoffed at the implication he is promoting his book for purely partisan reasons.

“It isn’t that it is a Republican down there,” he said motioning out the window toward the White House. “It is just that I am scared for the future and I am afraid of what is being done to the image of this country and to its psyche, which will probably never be fully rectified.”