Robert Byrd, West Virginia, was the longest serving legislator in the history of the U. S. Congress. He was loved by his constituents but he is not without controvery. In his earlier, pre-Senate days, he briefly belonged to the Klan. He publically admitted his mistake in later years but some Americans have been unforgiving and continually bring up this brief time in his career. It should not be allowed to over-shadow his remarkable career as a statesman.
From the Washington Post:
Starting in 1958, Mr. Byrd was elected to the Senate an unprecedented nine times. He wrote a four-volume history of the body, was majority leader twice and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, controlling the nation’s purse strings, and yet the positions of influence he held did not convey the astonishing arc of his life.
A child of the West Virginia coal fields, Mr. Byrd rose from the grinding poverty that has plagued his state since before the Great Depression, overcame an early and ugly association with the Ku Klux Klan, worked his way through night school and by force of will, determination and iron discipline made himself a person of authority and influence in Washington.
Although he mined extraordinary amounts of federal largesse for his perennially impoverished state, his reach extended beyond the bounds of the Mountain State.
As chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the District from 1961 to 1969, he reveled in his role as scourge, grilling city officials at marathon hearings and railing against unemployed black men and unwed mothers on welfare.
He was known for his stentorian orations seasoned with biblical and classical allusions and took pride in being the Senate’s resident constitutional scholar, keeping a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. He saw himself both as institutional memory and as guardian of the Senate’s prerogatives.
Most West Virginians had more immediate concerns, and Mr. Byrd strove to address them. On the Appropriations Committee, he pumped billions of dollars worth of jobs, programs and projects into a state that ranked near the bottom of nearly every economic indicator when he began his political career as a state legislator in the late 1940s. Countless congressional earmarks later, West Virginia is home to prisons, technology centers, laboratories and Navy and Coast Guard offices (despite being a landlocked state).
Critics mocked him as the “prince of pork,” but West Virginians expressed their gratitude by naming countless roads and buildings after him. He also was the only West Virginian to be elected to both houses of the state legislature and both houses of Congress.
As a young man, Mr. Byrd was an “exalted cyclops” of the Ku Klux Klan. Although he apologized numerous times for what he considered a youthful indiscretion, his early votes in Congress — notably a filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act — reflected racially separatist views. As those views moderated, Mr. Byrd rose in the party hierarchy.
A lifelong autodidact and a firm believer in continuing education — vocational schools, community colleges, adult education — Mr. Byrd practiced what he preached. While in the U.S. House from 1953 to 1959, he took night classes at law schools. He received a law degree from American University in 1963 and is the only member of Congress to put himself through law school while in office.
“Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said in a statement. “But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain.”
I have never talked to a West Virginian who didn’t have a special place in his or her heart for Senator Byrd. Senator Byrd never forgot his roots and always took care of his state. I expect West Virginia will be in mourning for a long time.