You can’t drive anywhere in West Virginia without seeing the name Robert C. Byrd.
Roads, schools, bridges, buildings, highways; he was an icon in West Virginia, a champion, and a true public servant.
One may not agree with his politics, but he did do what a good public servant does; he brought home the bacon.
When Robert C. Byrd was elected to congress by the good people of West Virginia, I was five months old. Truman was President, Ike had just been elected, and there were four miles of paved four lane road in the state of West Virginia.
Now, 58 years later, the state is covered UP with concrete, and that’s a good thing. He brought jobs and cash to the poorest State in America. With no coastline, WVA even had a Coast Guard Station!
Congressman Byrd served three terms, then moved on over to the Senate, where he stayed until Monday of this week.
He was 92 when he died, “suddenly and unexpectedly” as one news report said. Seriously, he was 92, unexpectedly?
Called a “fiery orator” by some, a liberal by others, Senator Byrd was a power broker in DC with whom everyone in The House and the Senate had to work for the last 58 years.
He was the longest sitting Senator in the history of the US.
Not bad for an adopted kid, born in North Carolina. His mother died when he was a baby and he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in WVA. He never knew he was adopted until he was 16, and did not know his real birthday until he was 54.
He was revered, loved, hated, and feared in WVA. But he was year after year, re-elected and sent back to Washington because he did what was best for WVA. And most of the people loved him.
“Bob is a living encyclopedia, and legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him,” former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, once said in remarks Byrd later displayed in his office. Yes, he had an ego.
His style and demeanor reminded me of a time when people in politics at least pretended to be civil! Byrd often seemed a Senate throwback to the 19th century. He could recite poetry, quote the Bible and use the verses correctly, discuss the Constitutional Convention and detail historic events such as the Peloponnesian Wars, and often on the Senate Floor he did just that. He, like my Aunt Diddie, was both a Democrat and a Devout Baptist.
He was a ruthless politican at times and knew the house and senate rules front and back. He used them to his advantage – often. As the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he controlled nearly a third of the US budget. He wasn’t above using the cash to reward and punish his friends and enemies.
Back in the 70’s he knocked Ted Kennedy out of his post as second in command, was elected majority leader, and hung onto that position until the Democrats lost the majority in the Reagan Revolution. He was still the party leader for the six years they were the minority, and revelled in another two years as the majority leader.
He loved his job, politics, the game, the US, and especailly West Virginia.
He carried a copy of the US Constitution in his suit pocket, and would whip it out on occassion to make a point.
And they loved him.
He was not only the longest sitting senator, he has more 18,500 roll call votes – another record.
He loved the Senate traditions, and they inspired him to write it’s four-volume history. His traditional values caused him to oppose laptops on the Senate floor and to object when a blind aide tried bringing a seeing-eye dog into the chamber.
In 2004, Byrd managed to get Congress to require schools and colleges to teach about the Constitution every Sept. 17, the day the document was adopted in 1787.
He was a man of his time who changed with the times as well. A Klansman in his youth, and totally opposed to the 1964 Civil Rights act, Byrd joined with other Southern Democrats when they unsuccessfully tried to filibuster the bill. Later in life, he appoligized for both, and had no trouble supporting his Party’s candidate, Barack Obama.
A true American Success Story, Robert Carlyle Byrd rose from the deepest poverty of West Virginia to become one of the most revered and respected politicians of my lifetime.
Public Service is a Very Classy Look!