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Robert Byrd's Life -- Good, Bad and All American

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Thursday, July 01, 2010

About 10,000 men and women have served in the United States Congress. Robert C. Byrd, who died Monday at age 92, served longer than all the rest - -more than 57 years, with six in the House and 51 in the Senate.

In 1917, the year he was born, the United States had 103 million people and the nation had just entered World War I. The year he died, the United States had 310 million people, with military personnel in more than 100 countries around the world.

Byrd's life and career tell us many things about our country -- some good things, some bad.  

Among the good things is that he was a paragon of upward mobility. Raised in a West Virginia coal camp, he was determined not to go into the mines. Like Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, he believed he was meant for better things. He studied hard and got good grades but was forced to drop out of college.  

He was 24 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, already a husband and father. Byrd worked at shipyards in Baltimore and Tampa, Fla., during the war. Then he returned to West Virginia and worked as a butcher.  

But then come the bad things. In Raleigh County, W.V., he organized a 150-member klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. That led the young kleagle to politics, and he was elected to the West Virginia legislature in 1946.  

That episode did not prevent and may have helped his rise. In 1952, Democratic leaders wanted him to drop out of the race, but he was elected to Congress and served in the last days of Harry Truman's administration.  

That gave him a reputation for independence, enhanced when he ran for the Senate in 1958 over the opposition of United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis. He won handily, and the man who worked as a butcher a dozen years before was a U.S. senator at age 41.  

As a young senator, he eyed a long career. One way to achieve that goal was to bring federal dollars -- a billion dollars -- to West Virginia. He pledged allegiance to Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (and at his behest supported Hubert Humphrey over John Kennedy in the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary) in return for a seat on the Appropriations Committee. A good thing or a bad thing? You decide -- the voters of West Virginia always thought the former.  

The other way Byrd sought to secure his position was clearly bad: to oppose civil rights for black Americans. He attracted attention by attacking welfare programs in Washington, D.C., with its rapidly rising black population. He filibustered for 14 hours against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The interesting thing is that this wasn't politically compulsory in his state. His West Virginia colleague Jennings Randolph voted for the bill.  

Byrd's alliance with Southern Democrats led him to seek a leadership post, and in 1971, with deathbed proxy of Georgia's Richard Russell in hand, he ousted Edward Kennedy from the whip position -- No. 2 in the leadership. By 1976, when Majority Leader Mike Mansfield retired, Byrd had done enough favors for colleagues that he was elevated to lead the Senate Democrats, and did so for 12 years.  

During that time, he continually worked to learn more -- a good thing -- about the Senate and the Constitution, the Founding Fathers and classical Rome. He delivered a series of speeches about the history of the Senate that, with the help of the Senate historian's office, were reprinted in a handsome book.  

He celebrated the traditions of the Senate, including the filibuster, and insisted that the legislative branch was the co-equal of the executive. He justified pork-barrel spending as a prerogative of Congress sanctioned by the Constitution and successfully brought suit against the line-item veto passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Bill Clinton -- two stands in which he had the support of his scholarly colleague Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  

He relinquished the majority leadership in 1988 for the position he had set about seeking 30 years before, the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, and was the lead Democrat there until the travails of age prevented him from carrying on.  

He leaves the scene when his beloved earmarks are in disfavor with most voters and his long-ago cultivation of racism seems despicable to all. But he embodied many of the good things in America as well -- determination to rise, hard work, respect for tradition. Quite an American life.

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner  . 

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