The United States Senate has lost another lion. 92 years old, Senator Byrd had served in the body he loved so dearly since 1953 – longer than any other member of Congress. In those 53 years, he cast more than 18,000 votes (also a record) and, remarkably, had a 98% attendance record over the course of his career. Byrd will be remembered as a staunch defender of the constitution – he was known for always carrying around a pocket-sized version in his suit – and his for mastery of Senate rules and talent at using them to his advantage. In fact, in one of the most famous quotes about Senator Byrd, former House Speaker Jim Wright noted that “legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him…”
One of the things I have always admired and will long-remember about Senator Byrd was his willingness to speak his mind – no matter who might disagree – and, just as importantly, his ability to listen, change his mind and admit when he was wrong. Agree or disagree with his stance on an issue, you always knew where he stood and why. He was an early advocate for cameras in the Senate and, it was due in large part to his tireless work on the issue, that they are there today.
However, as Byrd himself noted, there is a darker side to his history that, as he predicted, “will be in [his] obituary.” Lest we forget, Senator Byrd was a member of the KKK and, practically single-handedly, held up the Civil Rights Bill with an infamous 14-hour filibuster in 1963. While he did apologize years later saying “intolerance has no place in America,” his opposition to integration continued to manifest itself in his opposition to busing to integrate schools.
Finally, as a resident of Massachusetts, I have always been facinated by Byrd’s relationship with Senator Edward Kennedy. The two men were incredible rivals – Byrd, in one of his crowning achievements ousted Kennedy as the Democrat’s second in command in 1971 with a late-night rally punctuated by Byrd sneaking back into Washington after making Kennedy believe he had given up on the race. However, as time went on, they developed a very strong bond and few of us can forget the image of Byrd weeping openly upon learning of Kennedy’s brain cancer diagnosis or shouting, upon casting his “Aye” vote on healthcare reform “Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy…” In the final analysis, despite their many clashes these two giants of the Senate stood side-by-side in their opposition to the Iraq war and steadfast in their commitment to ensuring a better life for all of their fellow citizens.
After Kennedy’s death, Byrd remarked that “Neither years of age nor years of political combat, nor his illness, diminished the idealism and energy of this talented, imaginative, and intelligent man…” Those same words could be applied to the life and career of Senator Robert Byrd and, despite differences I have with him on issues of policy or methodology, I will forever admire this remarkable man – one of the most influential and great Senators we have ever seen.
As they do so well, CNN will, I’m sure, be updating this page throughout the day as notable political figures release statements on Senator Byrd’s passing.