Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, America’s longest-serving Senator, died overnight after having been in failing health for some time (he was wheeled onto the Senate floor to cast his vote for healthcare reform; the state’s governor, also a Democrat, will appoint an interim replacement).
Byrd’s biography stretches across nearly the whole of the American century, from prewar rural poverty to the upheavals of the Civil Rights Era and subsequent party politics, to the tragedy of Bush’s Wars and the hopeful dawning of the Obama administration.
A self-taught country boy born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. and renamed by the aunt and uncle who raised him after his mother died in the 1918 flu epedemic, Byrd didn’t go to college until he was already in Congress (he took night classes and in Washington and received his law degree as a senator). He’s best known for the sheer tonnage of federal money he brought to his home state as longtime chair of the appropriations committee—in West Virginia, notes the Times obit, you’ll find the “Robert C. Byrd Highway, two Robert C. Byrd federal buildings, the Robert C. Byrd Freeway, the Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism, the Robert C. Byrd Drive and the Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center”—perhaps a reaction to the charity he depended upon as a young student.
Byrd got his start in politics through his affiliation with the Klu Klux Klan in the 40s, an association which he has long since spoken of as a profound embarrassment. He was among the Southern Democrats who opposed LBJ’s Civil Rights Act in 1964—he filibustered for 14 hours, because back then if you wanted to stand in the way of progress you had to stand in the way of progress—but rather than defect to the GOP as many of his compatriots did, he stayed with the Democratic party and allowed his views to evolve.
As a senior member of the Senate, his speeches—peppered with classical allusions hearkening to an earlier age of political rhetoric—carried considerable weight, especially during the previous decade, when he was an eloquent and outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s wars of choice and executive-branch power-grabs. Salon pays tribute with a few videos of his speeches on the Senate floor during the debates of 2002, and again in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq in spring of 2003, which still gives you shivers.