Fresh Air Remembers Sen. Robert Byrd

  • Sen. Robert Byrd prepares to question panel members on mine safety May 20 in Washington. The longtime West Virginia legislator died Monday. He was 92.
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    Sen. Robert Byrd prepares to question panel members on mine safety May 20 in Washington. The longtime West Virginia legislator died Monday. He was 92.
    Carolyn Kaster/AP
  • Sen. Byrd, shown here in 1957, the year before he was elected to the United States Senate, was the longest-serving member in Congressional history.
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    Sen. Byrd, shown here in 1957, the year before he was elected to the United States Senate, was the longest-serving member in Congressional history.
    AP
  • Byrd greets President Kennedy at American University in Washington in 1963. Byrd earned his law degree from the university that year, graduating cum laude after 10 years of night school while serving in Congress. The university gave Kennedy an honorary doctor of laws degree.
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    Byrd greets President Kennedy at American University in Washington in 1963. Byrd earned his law degree from the university that year, graduating cum laude after 10 years of night school while serving in Congress. The university gave Kennedy an honorary doctor of laws degree.
    AP
  • Byrd repacks his briefcase on June 10, 1964, after completing a 14-hour speech during a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, a move he later said he regretted.
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    Byrd repacks his briefcase on June 10, 1964, after completing a 14-hour speech during a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, a move he later said he regretted.
    AP
  • Byrd chats with Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey in January 1977 on Capitol Hill, after Humphrey withdrew from the race to be Senate majority leader. Byrd was elected by a verbal vote to succeed the retiring Sen. Mike Mansfield.
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    Byrd chats with Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey in January 1977 on Capitol Hill, after Humphrey withdrew from the race to be Senate majority leader. Byrd was elected by a verbal vote to succeed the retiring Sen. Mike Mansfield.
    AP
  • Fiddle in hand, Byrd leads The Country Gentlemen in a song at a Washington record store in 1978. Byrd, who learned the fiddle as a boy growing up in West Virginia, appeared at the store to promote his album Mountain Fiddler.
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    Fiddle in hand, Byrd leads The Country Gentlemen in a song at a Washington record store in 1978. Byrd, who learned the fiddle as a boy growing up in West Virginia, appeared at the store to promote his album Mountain Fiddler.
    AP
  • Byrd was interviewed on CBS's Face the Nation in Washington, in July 1978.
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    Byrd was interviewed on CBS's Face the Nation in Washington, in July 1978.
    Dennis Cook/AP
  • Byrd and Sen. Robert Dole (R-KS) speak to President Reagan in 1985, after the first session of the 99th Congress adjourned. Byrd's time as a senator spanned 11 presidencies.
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    Byrd and Sen. Robert Dole (R-KS) speak to President Reagan in 1985, after the first session of the 99th Congress adjourned. Byrd's time as a senator spanned 11 presidencies.
    J. Scott Applewhite/AP
  • Byrd stands beside actor Stephen Lang during the filming of Gods and Generals in November 2001 in Keedysville, Md.  Byrd, then 84, played Confederate Brig. Gen. Paul J. Semmes in a cameo role. Byrd said he took the nonspeaking role to help stimulate interest in American history, a subject on which he sometimes lectured his colleagues.
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    Byrd stands beside actor Stephen Lang during the filming of Gods and Generals in November 2001 in Keedysville, Md. Byrd, then 84, played Confederate Brig. Gen. Paul J. Semmes in a cameo role. Byrd said he took the nonspeaking role to help stimulate interest in American history, a subject on which he sometimes lectured his colleagues.
    Jason Turner/The Journal via AP
  • Byrd poses with his wife, Erma, and their dog, Trouble, during a visit at Byrd's Capitol Hill office.
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    Byrd poses with his wife, Erma, and their dog, Trouble, during a visit at Byrd's Capitol Hill office.
  • At the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston in September 2005, Byrd announced that he would run for re-election. Byrd's legislative career began in the West Virginia Legislature, where he served terms in both chambers. He also served six years in the U.S. House before becoming a U.S. senator.
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    At the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston in September 2005, Byrd announced that he would run for re-election. Byrd's legislative career began in the West Virginia Legislature, where he served terms in both chambers. He also served six years in the U.S. House before becoming a U.S. senator.
    Jeff Gentner/AP
  • Byrd attends a funeral service for his wife in April 2006, at the Memorial Baptist Church in Arlington, Va. The couple married in May of 1937 and had two daughters.
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    Byrd attends a funeral service for his wife in April 2006, at the Memorial Baptist Church in Arlington, Va. The couple married in May of 1937 and had two daughters.
    Paul Morigi/Sen. Byrd's Office via AP
  • Byrd celebrates his re-election in 2006, in Charleston, W.Va. Byrd made history when he defeated Morgantown businessman John Raese to win a record ninth term in the U.S. Senate.
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    Byrd celebrates his re-election in 2006, in Charleston, W.Va. Byrd made history when he defeated Morgantown businessman John Raese to win a record ninth term in the U.S. Senate.
    Jeff Gentner/AP
  • Byrd, seated in a wheelchair, awaits the hearse carrying the remains of Sen. Edward Kennedy in August 2009 in Washington. Byrd and Kennedy served together in the Senate for nearly 50 years.
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    Byrd, seated in a wheelchair, awaits the hearse carrying the remains of Sen. Edward Kennedy in August 2009 in Washington. Byrd and Kennedy served together in the Senate for nearly 50 years.
    Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who became the longest serving senator in U.S. history, died early Monday morning at a hospital outside Washington, D.C. He was 92.

Byrd, who joined Congress in 1959, was known for his lengthy speeches, often infused with references from Biblical passages and historical facts, and his veneration of the U.S. Constitution.

Byrd grew up in the coal camps of southern West Virginia. His early resume was as colorful as his later language: He made a living as a gas station attendant, a welder, a meat cutter and a store owner before going to law school and running for a seat in the state house, then Congress in 1952.

Byrd, a two-time Senate majority leader and the chairman of the Appropriations committee, was especially proud of his early warnings before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. He made a now-famous speech in which he criticized the Bush administration for the first test of a revolutionary doctrine of preemptive war. He also criticized his colleagues for standing "passively mute in the U.S. Senate, paralyzed by our uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events."

In a 2004 interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Byrd explained to Terry Gross how he felt about delivering that speech, just 35 days before the U.S. bombed Baghdad.

"I was astonished to see a Senate which I had long, long come to revere stand mute," he said. "The men who were there and the one woman who was there when I came to the Senate would not have stood still. How changed this Senate was. How intimidated the members were. How afraid they were, many of them, of being called 'unpatriotic' if they didn't support the commander in chief."

Robert Byrd i i

Sen. Robert Byrd on Feb. 20, 1963, when he had already spent a decade in Congress. Charles Gorry/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Gorry/AP
Robert Byrd

Sen. Robert Byrd on Feb. 20, 1963, when he had already spent a decade in Congress.

Charles Gorry/AP

Byrd told Gross that he had several regrets in his own career. He voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized the president to use force to repel armed attack and prevent further aggression in Vietnam. He also apologized throughout his career for voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act — and for being a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s.

"I joined for a number of reasons. In that day and time, things were different than they are now," he told Gross. "Lawyers, judges, bankers and others were in the Klan, and so I joined it. I've regretted that. I've apologized for it. There's nothing more I can do, except I speak plainly when I condemn the Klan and its tactics. I've, I think, improved and grown since that time. And I would urge young men not to join the Klan."

Later in his career, Byrd would write a four-volume history of the Senate and deliver a series of lectures on the fall of the Roman Empire — which, he warned, should be carefully observed by the United States, so as not to see those mistakes repeated.

Byrd is survived by two daughters. His wife of 69 years, Erma Ora James Byrd, died in 2006.

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