Sen. Robert Byrd

  • Born: November 20, 1917
  • Died: June 28, 2010
  • Location: Fairfax, Virginia


Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., speaks Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006, upon winning his ninth term in Charleston, W.Va. Byrd defeated John Raese.

Longest serving senator dies at 92

ANDREW TAYLOR, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Robert C. Byrd, who rose from the poverty of West Virginia coal country to become the sage and conscience of the U.S. Senate in a political career stretching more than half a century, died Monday. He was 92.

Byrd's desk in the Senate chamber was draped in black, in recognition both of his longevity — he served longer and cast more votes than any senator in history — and the tenacity in which he defended the traditions and prerogatives of the Senate.

Brandishing his copy of the U.S. Constitution that he always carried with him, he resisted any attempt to diminish the role of the Senate, as in the days leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq when he was one of the few to stand up against ceding warmaking powers to President George W. Bush.

Byrd was equally tireless in steering federal dollars to his state, one of the nation's poorest, and his efforts will live on in the many highways and buildings in West Virginia that carry his name.

President Barack Obama said the Senate "has lost a venerable institution, and America has lost a voice of principle and reason."

"He held the deepest respect of members of both parties, and he was generous with his time and advice, something I appreciated greatly as a young senator," Obama said in a statement. Flags at the White House and the Capitol flew at half-staff Monday.

A spokesman for the family, Jesse Jacobs, said that Byrd died at about 3 a.m. at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va., where he had been since late last week. Byrd had been in frail health for several years.

Byrd was the Senate's majority leader for six of the 51 years he served there and he was third in the line of succession to the presidency, behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. With his death, the mostly honorary position of president pro tempore of the Senate goes to 85-year-old Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, now in his eighth term.

Tributes to the Senate's dean lent a somber tone to the first day Monday of Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

"No senator came to care more about the Constitution and be a more effective defender of our constitutional government than the senior senator from West Virginia," Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in his opening remarks. "In many ways, he was the keeper of the Senate flame, the fiercest defender of the Senate's constitutional role and prerogatives."

Separately Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a fellow West Virginian in the Senate, said it was his "greatest privilege" to serve with Byrd.

"I looked up to him, I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone," Rockefeller said.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Byrd "combined a devotion to the U.S. Constitution with a deep learning of history to defend the interests of his state and the traditions of the Senate."

"We will remember him for his fighter's spirit, his abiding faith, and for the many times he recalled the Senate to its purposes," McConnell said.

Former President Jimmy Carter said Byrd "was my closest and most valuable adviser" during his presidency, when Byrd served as Senate majority leader. Byrd was instrumental in getting the votes to pass the Panama Canal treaty Carter wanted, overcoming strong Republican opposition.

Byrd was skilled "in using arcane Senate rules to achieve his goals, and was proud of his ability to count votes and forge prevailing coalitions," Carter said in a statement.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, will appoint Byrd's replacement. Democratic sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose confidential conversations, said Manchin has told associates in the past he was interested in the seat.

The governor issued a statement Monday saying Byrd "was a fearless fighter for the Constitution, his beloved state and its great people." He told The Associated Press that he will not appoint himself to fill the seat, and had no timetable for naming a replacement.

In comportment and style, Byrd often seemed a Senate throwback to a courtlier 19th century. He could recite poetry, quote the Bible, discuss the Constitutional Convention and detail the Peloponnesian Wars — and frequently did in Senate debates.

Yet there was nothing particularly courtly about Byrd's pursuit or exercise of power.

Byrd was a master of the Senate's bewildering rules and longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls a third of the $3 trillion federal budget. He was willing to use both to reward friends and punish those he viewed as having slighted him.

"Bob is a living encyclopedia, and legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him," former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, once said in remarks Byrd later displayed in his office.

In 1971, Byrd ousted Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator, as the Democrats' second in command. He was elected majority leader in 1976 and held the post until Democrats lost control of the Senate four years later. He remained his party's leader through six years in the minority, then spent another two years as majority leader.

Byrd stepped aside as majority leader in 1989 when Democrats sought a more contemporary television spokesman. "I ran the Senate like a stern parent," Byrd wrote in his memoir, "Child of the Appalachian Coalfields." His consolation price was the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, with control over almost limitless federal spending.

Within two years, he surpassed his announced five-year goal of making sure more than $1 billion in federal funds was sent back to West Virginia, money used to build highways, bridges, buildings and other facilities, some named after him.

In 2006 and with 64 percent of the vote, Byrd won an unprecedented ninth term in the Senate just months after surpassing South Carolinian Strom Thurmond's record as its longest-serving member. His more than 18,500 roll call votes were another record.

Byrd seemed to slow after the death of Erma, his wife of almost 69 years, in 2006. Frail and at times wistful, he used two canes to walk haltingly and needed help from aides to make his way about the Senate. He often hesitated at unscripted moments. By 2009, aides were bringing him to and from the Senate floor in a wheelchair.

In late 2008 he surrendered his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.

Byrd's lodestar was protecting the Constitution. He frequently pulled out a dog-eared copy of it from a pocket in one of his trademark three-piece suits. He also defended the Senate in its age-old rivalry with the executive branch, no matter which party held the White House.

Unlike other prominent Senate Democrats such as 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, Byrd stood firm in opposition — and felt gratified when public opinion swung behind him.

"The people are becoming more and more aware that we were hoodwinked, that the leaders of this country misrepresented or exaggerated the necessity for invading Iraq," Byrd said.

He cited Iraq when he endorsed then-Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination in May 2008, calling Obama "a shining young statesman, who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure."

Byrd's accomplishments followed a childhood of poverty in West Virginia, and his success on the national stage came despite a complicated history on racial matters. As a young man, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan for a brief period, and he joined Southern Democrats in an unsuccessful filibuster against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

He later apologized for both actions, saying intolerance has no place in America. While supporting later civil rights bills, he opposed busing to integrate schools.

Byrd briefly sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 and later told associates he had once been approached by President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, about accepting an appointment to the Supreme Court.

But he was a creature — and defender — of Congress across a career that began in 1952 with his election to the House. He served three terms there before winning his Senate seat in 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House.

In a measure of his tenacity, Byrd took a decade of night courses to earn a law degree in 1963, and completed his long-delayed bachelor's degree at West Virginia's Marshall University in 1994 with correspondence classes.

Byrd was a near-deity in economically struggling West Virginia, to which he delivered countless federally financed projects. Entire government bureaus opened there, including the FBI's repository for computerized fingerprint records. Even the Coast Guard had a facility in the landlocked state. Critics portrayed him as the personification of Congress' thirst for wasteful "pork" spending projects.

Robert Carlyle Byrd was born Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C., as Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr., the youngest of five children.

Before he was 1, his mother died and his father sent him to live with an aunt and uncle, Vlurma and Titus Byrd, who renamed him and moved to the coal-mining town of Stotesbury, W.Va. He didn't learn his original name until he was 16 and his real birthday until he was 54.

Byrd's foster father was a miner who frequently changed jobs, and Byrd recalled that the family's house was "without electricity, ... no running water, no telephone, a little wooden outhouse."

He graduated from high school but could not afford college. Married in 1936 to high school sweetheart Erma Ora James — with whom he had two daughters — he pumped gas, cut meat and during World War II was a shipyard welder.

Returning to meat cutting in West Virginia, he became popular for his fundamentalist Bible lectures. A grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan suggested he run for office.

He won his first race — for the state's House of Delegates — in 1946, distinguishing himself from 12 rivals by singing and fiddling mountain tunes. His fiddle became a fixture; he later played it on the television show "Hee Haw" and recorded an album. He abandoned it only after a grandson's traumatic death in 1982 and when his shaky hands left him unable to play.

At his 90th birthday party in 2007, however, Byrd joined bluegrass band Lonesome Highway in singing a few tunes and topped off the night with a rendition of "Old Joe Clark."

After six years in the West Virginia legislature, Byrd was elected to the U.S. House in 1952 in a race in which his brief Klan membership became an issue. He said he joined because of its anti-communism.

Byrd entered Congress as one of its most conservative Democrats. He was an early supporter of the Vietnam War, and his 14-hour, 13-minute filibuster against the 1964 civil rights bill remains one of the longest ever. His views gradually moderated, particularly on economic issues, but he always sided with his state's coal interests in confrontations with environmentalists.

His love of Senate traditions inspired him to write a four-volume history of the chamber. It also led him to oppose laptops on the Senate floor and to object when a blind aide tried bringing her seeing-eye dog into the chamber.

In 2004, Byrd got Congress to require schools and colleges to teach about the Constitution every Sept. 17, the day the document was adopted in 1787.

Condolence & Memory Journal

I need help! We are trying to bring about chegnas to our current Before/After care program, particularly in the evening. We have K-5 from 3:30-6pm and parents picking up any time.Our current teacher is convinced that curriculum is impossible. The children get outside play and homework time, but after that it is all free play with no learning going on. I don't have experience with this type of program in particular, but I believe we could be doing so much more. Can you help me with types of schedules we might do or a sample lesson plan?We are looking for a new teacher who will be open to change.Thank you!

Posted by Marina - u48GQvlaVgC, IN - FEHI1b4y0U   August 08, 2015

hey dude sorry to see you go . you were fun to work with (sometimes) ha ha!!! If i have the cash which i wont nor the time off we should try and go to the Blues and Roots again! Drop in every now and then and rub in how much betetr you are , if you ever feel the need! Bye from Bianca Dallas!!

Posted by Pradana - 8MnPuMTxxVSz, TN - Evz6b3CElh   July 05, 2015

I have lived in WV most of my life and voted for Sen. Byrd many times. He has always been here,now he is gone, he will be deeply missed. We watched him grow not only as a polictian but as a person. No one can pick up his torch he was one of a kind. Patty Adkins

Posted by patty adkins - huntington, WV   July 09, 2010


No one will ever be able to replace Senator Byrd. What a great loss to our state. He did not have to spend MILLIONS of dollars on re-elections. The next person will spend out the wazooo for his position. But they will not be able to accomplish anything near what Senator Byrd did for the state. An honest man who did not take kickbacks or gifts in order to get what he wanted in Congress. One of a kind.

No one in Congress knows the Constitution like he did.

God love his heart and may he Rest in Peace.

Posted by Luckie    July 07, 2010


My Grandfather, Chester Smith, grew up next Robert Byrd. My Grandfather and Grandmother kept in touch with him until they passed. My Grandfather actually taught Robert how to drive, which I am sure was not so easy on those mountains in West Virginia! He will be missed by many. My prayers go out to his family at this difficult time. May God Bless you all.
Tiffani Smith-Rose

Posted by Tiffani Rose - family of friend to Robert Byrd   July 07, 2010

I had the honor of meeting Senator Byrd onseveral occasions. Great person and great public servant.

Posted by Mark Triplett - Branchland, WV - Friend   July 06, 2010

Robert Byrd will be sorely missed for his unique intelligence, personal style and compassion. He was a great man. I have admired him, watched his speeches, and even have his fiddle record from long ago. I feel a sense of deep, personal loss.

My husband died about a year ago while we were at our West Virginia property. He would call me in to watch whenever Senator Byrd was speaking on TV. He loved Senator Byrd. I imagine they and many others are having a celebratory hoedown in Heaven.

Posted by Diane Weaver - Fletcher, NC - Citizen   June 28, 2010


Was very honest, and was for the people. he served many years in office. My consolidence is with his family

Posted by Jean Ann Stevens - Newell, WV   June 28, 2010

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Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., speaks Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006, upon winning his ninth term in Charleston, W.Va. Byrd defeated John Raese.
President Bush poses with The Dalai Lama during the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honoring The Dalai Lama. From left are, The Dalai Lama, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. the president, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky.
In this Sept. 11, 2008 file photo, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va, waves a flag during a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington in remembrance of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va is seen during a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008, in remembrance of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks.

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In this June 10, 1963 file photo, President John Kennedy shakes hands with Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W. Va., at American University graduation exercises in Washington June 10, 1963. The university gave Kennedy an honorary doctor of law degree.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, speaks during a press conference as Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., right, looks on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006 prior to the annual Jefferson-Jackson Democratic dinner in Charleston, W.Va.
In this Sept. 19, 1960 photo, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., is welcomed by, from left, W. VA Sens. Robert C. Byrd & Jennings Randolph & State Attorney General W.W. Barron.
Gov. Joe Manchin, left, celebrates with Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., right, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006, in Charleston, W.Va., after Byrd won re-election. Byrd defeated John Raese to win a record ninth term in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., walks to his office on Capitol Hill Monday, June 12, 2006. Byrd became the longest serving U.S. senator in history Monday
In this July 5, 1967 file photo, Robert C. Byrd Sen. D-West Va., is shown. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a fiery orator versed in the classics and a hard-charging power broker who steered billions of federal dollars to the state of his Depression-era upbringing, died Monday, June 28, 2010.

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In this Jan. 30, 2003 file photo, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va, left, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., talk to reporters on Capitol Hill to discuss the situation in Iraq.
In this Jan. 10, 1964 file photo, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W. Va., repacks his brief case on after keeping the senate in a round-the clock session with a more than 15-hour speech.