Monday, June 28, 2010

The Arc of a Man's Life - Senator Robert Byrd Passes Away at 92

West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd dead at 92
By ANDREW TAYLOR, Associated Press Writer Andrew Taylor, Associated Press Writer – Mon Jun 28, 6:02 am ET

WASHINGTON – 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. He was 92.

A spokesman for the family, Jesse Jacobs, said Byrd died peacefully at about 3 a.m. at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va. He had been in the hospital since late last week.

At first Byrd was believed to be suffering from heat exhaustion and severe dehydration, but other medical conditions developed. He had been in frail health for several years.

Byrd, a Democrat, was the longest-serving senator in history, holding his seat for more than 50 years. He was the Senate's majority leader for six of those years and was third in the line of succession to the presidency, behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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.

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.

Rest of obituary at link above.

The President Comments on Byrd:

President Barack Obama says the country has lost a voice of principle and reason with the passing of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

In a statement, Obama says Byrd had a profound passion for the Senate, and held the deepest respect for members of both parties. Obama says that as a young senator, he appreciated Byrd’s generosity with his time and advice.

He said that Byrd, in his words, was “as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chambers and corridors.”

Speaking earlier in the day at an event in Louisville, Ky., Vice President Joe Biden remembered Byrd as a tough, compassionate leader and said the Senate “is a lesser place for his going.”

The President wrote about Byrd in Audacity of Hope:

That said, Obama was well aware of how compelling it was to work alongside someone who, just a few decades earlier, had vigorously fought the very notion that an African-American should share the same rights as his white colleagues. In his book "Audacity of Hope", he wrote -- with wonder more than reverence -- of his first meeting with Byrd:

Listening to Senator Byrd I felt with full force all the essential contradictions of me in this new place, with its marble busts, its arcane traditions, its memories and its ghosts. I pondered the fact that, according to his own autobiography, Senator Byrd had received his first taste of leadership in his early twenties, as a member of the Raleigh County Ku Klux Klan, an association that he had long disavowed, an error he attributed -- no doubt correctly -- to the time and place in which he'd been raised, but which continued to surface as an issue throughout his career. I thought about how he had joined other giants of the Senate, like J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Richard Russell of Georgia, in Southern resistance to civil rights legislation. I wondered if this would matter to the liberals who now lionized Senator Byrd for his principled opposition to the Iraq War resolution -- the crowd, the heirs of the political counterculture the senator had spent much of his career disdaining.

I wondered if it should matter. Senator Byrd's life -- like most of ours -- has been the struggle of warring impulses, a twining of darkness and light. And in that sense I realized that he really was a proper emblem for the Senate, whose rules and design reflect the grand compromise of America's founding: the bargain between Northern states and Southern states, the Senate's role as a guardian against the passions of the moment, a defender of minority rights and state sovereignty, but also a tool to protect the wealthy from the rabble, and assure slaveholders of noninterference with their peculiar institution. Stamped into the very fiber of the Senate, within its genetic code, was the same contest between power and principle that characterized America as a whole, a lasting expression of that great debate among a few brilliant, flawed men that had concluded with the creation of a form of government unique in its genius--yet blind to the whip and the chain.

Those who always bring up Byrd's membership in the KKK, yes, it gives me pause. But, the man lived a long enough life to show the arc of it. Unlike a Jesse Helms, who, til the bitter end, acted like he longed for the America of slavery and Jim Crow, Robert Byrd had a long enough legislative life for me to believe that he had evolved. That he had gained wisdom for his previous choices, and to believe that he had come to regret those earlier choices.

RIP, Senator Byrd. You served West Virginia well.

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