It’s common in eulogies to say “we will never see his (or her) like again,” but it was never truer about anyone than Sen. Robert Byrd.
The former Senate Majority Leader and Appropriations chairman, who died Monday, was born in 1917 and began serving in the House in 1953 and the Senate in 1959. But the West Virginia Democrat’s manner and defense of hallowed tradition harkened back to even earlier days. As Senate Historian Donald Ritchie once said, Byrd’s “knowledge more closely reflects … the 19th century than the 20th or 21st.”
Byrd’s speeches, to present-day listeners, sounded anachronistic, but he quoted Shakespeare, the King James Bible and Thucydides from memory and used them to make contemporary points.
In 1993, he famously battled against giving the line-item veto to the president by delivering 14 speeches on the history of Rome and its relevance to the Senate, declaring, “Gaius Julius Caesar did not seize power in Rome. The Roman Senate thrust power on Caesar deliberately, with forethought, with surrender.”
His antique style was often snickered at by cable-show panelists, but this was a man of prodigious intellect — largely self-taught, author of four books, the only Member of Congress ever to earn a law degree while in office.
In his eulogy on the Senate floor, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said movingly, “Robert Byrd loved three things above all others: his wife, Erma, the state of West Virginia and this Senate. And each loved him back.” He was married to his high school sweetheart for 67 years before she died in 2006. He never lost an election in West Virginia and, in nine campaigns for the Senate, never received less than 59 percent of the vote.
As Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday, “more than anyone else in our lifetimes, Robert Byrd embodied the Senate. He not only wrote the book on it, he was a living repository of its rules, its customs and its prerogatives.”
Byrd defended the filibuster as an essential feature of the Senate, although as Majority Whip in 1975 he helped lower the threshold for breaking them to 60 votes from 75. He resisted further rule changes, however, including a ban on secret holds.
He was once a Southern segregationist who filibustered for 14 hours against the 1964 Civil Rights Act — for which he profusely apologized — but ended up endorsing the nation’s first black president and voted this year to abandon the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from the military.
He voted for the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam War but opposed both Gulf wars.
In other respects he never changed. He was devoted to the U.S. Constitution, carrying a copy in his pocket and distributing copies to his colleagues. He defended Congress’ power of the purse — and Members’ right to earmark funds for their states. He once said he wanted to be “West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry.” He actually brought in $3 billion, by one estimate.
“An earmark may be pork to some political chatterbox on television,” he said in 2008, “but to many communities in West Virginia and other states, they are economic lifelines.”
Robert Byrd was not entirely stuck in the past, but he also never forgot where he came from.