Robert C. Byrd, Senate's Longest Serving Member, Dead at 92

The reformed KKK member cast more than 18,600 votes in storied Senate career.

January 20, 2009, 4:38 PM

June 28, 2010— -- West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, died early this morning. He was 92.

Byrd was admitted to a Washington area hospital a week ago, suffering from what was believed to be heat exhaustion and severe dehydration as a result of the extreme temperatures in the nation's capital. By Sunday afternoon, other conditions developed, and Byrd's health took a turn for the worse.

Byrd died at 3 a.m. Monday morning at Inova Fairfax hospital in Falls Church, Virginia.

Born Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Byrd was orphaned at the age of 1 when his mother died. He was raised by his aunt and uncle in a rural community near the coalfields of West Virginia.

The life lessons he learned while growing up in a coal-mining family helped him shape his political career; he ultimately achieved the distinction of being a three-term representative and a nine-term senator.

"The people of West Virginia have lost a true champion, the United States Senate has lost a venerable institution and America has lost a voice of principle and reason with the passing of Robert C. Byrd," President Obama said in a statement today. "He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors."

Vice President Joe Biden remembered Byrd as a "tough, compassionate, and outspoken leader."

"We shall not see his like again," Biden said today at an event in Louisville, Kentucky. "And the Senate is a lesser place for his going."

Famed for his informed, often lengthy speeches on the floor of the Senate, Byrd's admirers praised his mastery of governmental procedure, historical knowledge and candor -- often calling him the "conscience of the Senate."

Byrd will be remembered "as that guardian of the Senate, as an institution. He insisted on the dignity of the Senate and tried to make people put aside their partisanship and really look at the Senate as a deliberative body," ABC News contributor Cokie Roberts said on "Good Morning America."

Byrd always carried a copy of the Constitution and often pulled it out in one of his fiery speeches on the Senate floor. But what set him apart from other senators was that "he could put it back in his pocket and recite it verbatim, the whole Constitution," recalled Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

In his 51 years in the Senate, the Democratic senator cast more than 18,600 votes -- more than any other senator to date.

Delivering a tribute on the Senate floor following Byrd's 18,000th vote, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, said, "To help put the length of his service in perspective, consider a few facts: When Sen. Byrd cast his first vote in the Senate -- on Jan. 8, 1959 -- his colleagues included Sens. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Vice President Richard Nixon was the presiding officer. Hawaii was not yet a state. And a state-of-the-art computer would have taken up half of the space of this chamber, and had roughly the same amount of computing power as a Palm Pilot."

Byrd served as president pro tempore of the Senate -- a post that put the 92-year-old third in line for presidency after Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Tributes from Capitol Hill hailed Byrd as a fiery orator who loved the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, remembered Byrd as "one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen.

"The people of West Virginia have lost a dedicated public servant, and America has lost a great defender of its most precious traditions," Reid said in a statement. "He was the foremost guardian of the Senate's complex rules, procedures and customs, and as leader of both the majority and the minority caucuses in the Senate he knew better than most that legislation is the art of compromise."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, praised Byrd's "fighter's spirit" and "abiding faith."

"He was a great patriot. He loved the Senate, there's no doubt about it," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, said on "GMA." "He had a great way for words."

Byrd's replacement will be picked by West Virginia's Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin and will occupy the seat until 2012.

Under West Virginia law, if a the vacancy in the Senate occurs less than two years and six months before the end of the term -- which in this case is January 2013 -- the governor appoints someone to fill the entire term. But if a vacancy occurs before that time period, as would be the case with Byrd's death, a special election is held in November to fill the remainder of the term.

Manchin, whose second term expires in 2012, is said to be eyeing the seat himself.

In a written statement Monday morning, Manchin said all West Virginians' hearts break at the passing of Byrd and that the state has "suffered a terrible loss."

With Byrd's death, Democrats not only lost a longtime leader but also the crucial 60th vote to pass the financial reform bill that has been pending for weeks in the Senate.

Robert C. Byrd, Longest Serving Senator, Had Humble Beginnings

During the Great Depression, Byrd graduated as valedictorian of his high school class but could not afford college. Instead, he sought employment wherever he found an opportunity -- whether it meant pumping gas, selling produce or working as a butcher.

Welding, one of the skills Byrd developed, was in demand after the beginning of World War II. During the war years, he helped build the USS Liberty and USS Victory. At war's end, in 1946, he returned to West Virginia with political aspirations and mounted a successful campaign for the West Virginia House of Delegates.

After serving two terms, Byrd was elected to the West Virginia Senate, then to the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms, and finally, in 1958, to the Senate. He has represented West Virginia continuously, winning re-election by record margins in statewide elections.

Despite his successful political track record, the Senate's senior Democrat was no stranger to controversy, and was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Byrd said he joined the white supremacist group in 1942 because it "offered excitement." He claimed the Klan was an "effective force" in "promoting traditional American values" and "was strongly opposed to communism."

Byrd reportedly ended his ties with the group in 1943, telling the Washington Post in June 1993 that his stint in the KKK was the mistake in his life that he most regretted.

"Just as a lot of young people these days join organizations they regret joining, I joined as a youth and regretted it later," he said. "I made a mistake."

But West Virginia Republicans uncovered a letter Byrd had written to the imperial wizard of the KKK three years after he said he abandoned the group. In the letter, he wrote: "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia" and "in every state in the Union."

In a 1947 letter, Byrd vowed never to fight "with a Negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."

In 1964, Byrd filibustered the landmark civil rights legislation for more than 14 hours but later said it was his biggest regret in the Senate. Decades later, he opposed the nominations of the Supreme Court's two black justices -- liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservative Clarence Thomas.

In March 2001, Byrd made headlines again after he stunned a national television audience by using the term "white niggers" when asked about the state of race relations.

"They are much, much better than they've ever been in my lifetime," Byrd said on the cable talk show. "I think we talk about race too much. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time -- I'm going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much."

Byrd later apologized.

"The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today's society," he said.

By 2005, facing a potentially tough re-election campaign, Byrd received support from an unlikely source -- freshman Sen. Barack Obama, the only black member of the Senate, who sent out a fundraising letter on Byrd's behalf that raised nearly $825,000 in a few days.

Byrd endorsed Obama after the West Virginia primary, despite Obama's loss to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in that contest.

Asked about the endorsement given his personal history on the issue of race, Byrd replied, "Those days are gone. Gone."

Despite his controversial involvement in the KKK, Byrd repeatedly apologized for it in the latter part of his career, calling it the biggest mistake of his life.

"He was in politics a very long time, and the country changed enormously between 1940 when he first ran for the state legislature and 2010," Roberts said. "He was able to adapt to the changes even as he insisted on staying firm with the role of the Senate."

Robert Byrd: Defender of Constitutionn

Byrd served longer in the U.S. Senate than anyone else in American history and was undefeated in every election for the Senate seat he occupied.

"I served with him for 36 years. We sat in the same row," Leahy said on "GMA." "He was a senator's senator. He was a keeper of our traditions, a keeper of the rules and the kind of senator who always kept his word."

Byrd joined the Senate leadership in 1967, when his colleagues selected him to serve as secretary of the Democratic Conference. In 1971, he was chosen Senate Democratic whip.

Six years later, he was elected Democratic leader, a position he held for six consecutive terms. He served two six-year terms as both Senate majority and minority leader.

In 1989, after 30 years of membership, he chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. That same year, he was unanimously elected president pro tempore of the Senate, a post that placed him third in the line of succession to the presidency. It also earned him the distinction of having the most leadership positions in the Senate.

In June 2001, Byrd regained the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee and was re-elected president pro tempore of the Senate.

Byrd was a fierce opponent of the Iraq War even though he supported the war in Vietnam. Byrd delivered a strongly worded rebuke of President George W. Bush, after he had received a vote of support from Congress.

"Today I weep for my country," Byrd said. "I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned."

Never consumed by the unrelenting demands of his job, Byrd was personal friends with many of his colleagues.

When Sen. Ted Kennedy suffered a seizure at a luncheon following Obama's inauguration, Byrd was so upset and distraught from what he had witnessed that he needed to be taken out of the Capitol Rotunda.

Late last year, despite being confined to a wheelchair, Byrd came to the Senate and cast a vote in favor of health care reform, a cause Kennedy championed throughout his career. He proclaimed, "This is for my friend Ted Kennedy: Aye."

"He served to the end: I will never forget watching him being wheeled on to the Senate floor to cast his decisive vote for health care reform," former President Bill Clinton said in a statement today.

Stemming from his own struggles in school and college, Byrd made education a key priority in his legislative career. He established the Scholastic Recognition Award in 1969, which gave a valedictorian from every West Virginia public and private high school a special savings bond. He also helped launch the first merit-based federal scholarship program in 1985.

Byrd helped steer billions of federal dollars into economic projects into West Virginia. In the two years he served as the Democrats' majority leader, stepping down in 1989, Byrd helped send more than $1 billion in federal funds to West Virginia for highways, bridges, buildings and other facilities, some named after him.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also a Democratic senator from West Virginia, said it was his "greatest privilege" to serve with Byrd, and that his death "leaves a void that simply can never be filled."

"I am proud knowing that his moving life story and legacy of service and love for West Virginia will live on," Rockefeller said in a statement today.

Byrd also supported the coal industry, a leading employer in his state, a position that often put him at odds with environmentalists and other Democratic lawmakers.

Byrd was a self-professed dog lover.

"I lost one of my best friends today," he announced at a Senate Appropriations hearing in April 2002, after the death of his Maltese.

Byrd was outraged by the dogfighting charges against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. The senator took to the floor, delivering a scathing speech against the disgraced NFL star.

"I am confident -- madam president, I am confident that the hottest places in hell are reserved for the souls of sick and brutal people who hold God's creatures in such brutal and cruel contempt," Byrd said.

Byrd was a colorful character on the Senate floor, his peers said. He learned to play the fiddle at a young age and enjoyed playing it for his constituents, carrying it with him virtually everywhere he went. In one campaign year, the longtime senator even used his fiddle case as his briefcase. He performed at the Kennedy Center and recorded an album called "Mountain Fiddler."

"He'd strut onto the floor for years wearing colorful vests," Roberts said. "He had a pompadour. He was very different from your run-of-the-mill TV-era senators."

Byrd was also a self-professed "family man."

He met Erma Ora James, the daughter of a coal miner, at Mark Twain High School, and, shortly after graduation in 1937, they were married at age 19.

On his Senate website, it was noted, "For nearly 69 years, the Byrds were inseparable, traveling the hills and hollows of West Virginia and crossing the globe together."

The Byrds had two children, Mona Carole Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Ellen Byrd Moore.

In March 2006, Erma Byrd died at age 88, prompting her husband to eulogize her on the Senate floor May 26, 2006, three days before what would have been their 69th wedding anniversary.

They are survived by both daughters, their husbands, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"Could I have made this journey without her? Could I have accomplished as much without her? I think not. The more important point is that I did it with her, and I would not have had it any other way," Byrd said.

"She was God's greatest gift to me."

ABC News' Karen Travers and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.

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