Longest-serving member of Congress in US history dies at 92

Posted by | June 30, 2010

The Charleston Gazette

by Greg Moore

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Robert Carlyle Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in United States history, who spent much of his career as a conservative Democrat, and ended it by fiercely opposing the war in Iraq and questioning the state’s powerful coal industry, died Monday. He was 92.

Byrd was perhaps best known for the way he funneled dozens of projects and millions of federal dollars to his home state, West Virginia. He earned the sobriquet “the Prince of Pork” from some taxpayer groups — they meant it as an insult, but Byrd wore it as a badge of honor.

Byrd ran for state and national office 15 times and never lost. Once elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958, he steadily advanced through the ranks. He was named majority whip in 1971 and majority leader in 1975. Democrats became the minority party in the Senate in 1981, but Byrd remained their leader until they regained control of the Senate in 1987.

In 1946 Byrd decided to run for the West Virginia House of Delegates. In the campaign, the political newcomer faced fierce competition from twelve other people, including three incumbents. Robert had no previous political experience, but he learned a great deal in his very first political campaign. Since he was an unknown in political circles, he soon realized that he needed a gimmick to attract attention and make himself recognizable. His gimmick became his violin. Byrd took the violin everywhere and at meetings offered to play a couple of tunes before giving his speech. The gimmick worked! –SouloftheSenate.org

In 1989, he was elected president pro tempore of the Senate — a largely ceremonial post — and named chairman of the Appropriations Committee. It was there that he began funneling federal projects and money to West Virginia in earnest. The first big salvo came in 1991, when FBI officials announced they would build their new fingerprint identification center just outside Clarksburg.

Now, dozens of projects bear the senator’s name: the Green Bank radio telescope, the federal courthouses in Charleston and Beckley, the locks on the Ohio River at Gallipolis Ferry, a Clarksburg high school and numerous streets, libraries, health clinics, college departments — a seemingly unending list. There’s the Robert C. Byrd Freeway (Corridor G) and the Robert C. Byrd Highway (Corridor H), both part of the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System.

As he said in 2000, “West Virginia has always had four friends: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd.”

The group Citizens Against Government Waste said Byrd was the first legislator to bring $1 billion of “pork” spending to his home state, and named Byrd its initial “Porker of the Year” in 2002.

“Such criticism rolled off me like water from a duck’s back,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.” He also referred to his critics as “a bunch of peckerwoods” in an interview on National Public Radio.

His relish for the role of West Virginia’s benefactor was apparent during his last campaign in 2006, when his opponent mocked Byrd for calling himself “Big Daddy” for getting money to fund a biotechnology center at Marshall University.

At the party after Byrd’s resounding election victory, celebrants wore stickers that said, “Who’s Your Daddy Now?”

Byrd’s political career was also dogged by his early membership in the Ku Klux Klan, which he said he joined mostly because of its anti-communist position and the political connections he could make there. But in a 1945 letter to a segregationist U.S. senator, Byrd wrote that he would never fight in the armed forces alongside blacks, and said he never wanted to “see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.”

In 1964, Byrd filibustered against the landmark Civil Rights Act for more than 14 hours and voted against it. Forty years later, he said that was the one vote of his congressional career that he regretted most.

In his autobiography, Byrd wrote of his membership in the KKK: “It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation.”

Indeed, Byrd could not fully escape his racist past. In his 1982 campaign, his opponent’s supporters presented Byrd with a Klan robe at a rally.

As late as 2001, Byrd used the phrase “white niggers” in a nationally televised interview. He later apologized and said, “The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today’s society.”

Byrd endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008, but waited until after West Virginia’s Democratic primary, which Obama lost badly.

As for the war in Iraq, Byrd’s opposition began mostly over what he saw as the Bush administration’s attempts to declare war without the approval of Congress.

He described the situation as another Gulf of Tonkin, referring to the 1964 resolution that gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to use military force in Southeast Asia without a formal congressional declaration of war. Byrd voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution — and again, came to regret his vote.

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