Robert C. Byrd became the longest serving U.S. senator in history Monday. And, with almost 48 years of service, he’s not finished yet.
Byrd, D-W.Va., surpassed the record of Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and has spent 17,327 days in the body, where he’s the epitome of an old-school senator.
At 88, he’s running for a record ninth term and is favored to win in November. Byrd is a political icon in the Mountain State, where he’s known for his efforts each year to send hundreds of millions of federal dollars back home through his post on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Byrd took to the floor Monday to listen to plaudits from colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He’s slowed by age and grief-stricken by the recent death of Erma, his wife of almost 69 years. He requires two canes to slowly make his way around the Capitol, but his mind is still sharp.
His milestone was a bittersweet day; Erma Byrd would have turned 89 on Monday.
Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn, lauded Byrd’s “astonishing record of service,” calling him “one of the greatest orators in the grand tradition of this august Senate.”
“Robert Byrd is a giant,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
When Byrd first won election in 1958, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and Lyndon Johnson was the iron-fisted leader of the Senate. Byrd positioned himself as a Senate insider and was majority leader during the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the last two years of Ronald Reagan’s second term, where he commanded the floor with a mastery of the rules and more than a little intimidation.
Byrd’s political rise began in the coalfields of West Virginia where the adopted son of a miner grew up in poverty in a house without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. His fiddle-playing helped further a career that began with his 1946 election to the West Virginia House of Delegates.
Fervent opposition of Iraqi war
In many ways Byrd is out of synch with today’s political scene, quoting from the Bible and citing Roman history in his speeches. He carries a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket.
But his fervent opposition to the war in Iraq has earned him a following among young liberals disappointed with support of the war by prominent Democrats such as Hillary Clinton of New York and 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry.
Of all of his more than 17,000 votes, Byrd says he is most proud of his 2002 vote in opposition to the Iraq war.
Still, his career has had some low points. Byrd participated in an unsuccessful filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a young man, he join the Ku Klux Klan, a mistake he has been saddled with since the early 1940s.
His voting record has become more liberal over the years, even as his beloved West Virginia has turned solidly Republican in presidential elections. Even though he’s never lost a race in 14 elections, Byrd is taking no chances this November, having raised more than $3.8 million for his race against GOP businessman John Raese.