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Byrd's Legacy: 18,000 Votes Later, He Loved His Job

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Byrd's Legacy: 18,000 Votes Later, He Loved His Job


Byrd's Legacy: 18,000 Votes Later, He Loved His Job

Byrd's Legacy: 18,000 Votes Later, He Loved His Job

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The longest-serving senator in U.S. history has died. West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd died Monday in a Washington-area hospital at age 92. Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, talks with Mary Louise Kelly about Byrd's legacy in the Senate and across his home state.


The longest-serving U.S. senator in history has died. Robert Byrd of West Virginia held his seat for more than 50 years. Three years ago, as he cast his 18,000th vote, Byrd said he loved the Senate dearly.


Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): I love the Senate for its rules; I love the Senate for its precedents; I love the Senate for the difference that it can make in people's lives.

KELLY: Joining us now is Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Welcome.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Political Science, Rutgers University): Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Now, Professor Baker, Senator Byrd was well-known for carrying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in the pocket of his suits - his three-piece suits, I should add. This was a man who loved the law, loved the Constitution.

Prof. BAKER: Yes, he certainly was. And he sometimes used that little copy of the Constitution as a kind of magic wand, in which he would wave in the direction of colleagues he disagreed with. It was very interesting to see him use that as his, in a sense, his attack weapon against his adversaries. But he was very much a devotee of the U.S. Constitution and very knowledgeable about it.

KELLY: Now, speaking of people who opposed him and lived to regret it, I remember a great line from Jim Wright, the former House speaker, who once said about Byrd that - and I'll quote - "legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him." This was a man who had mastered Senate rules.

Prof. BAKER: Well, that's right, he certainly did, and he was not necessarily any friend of presidents. He very sharply disapproved of President Clinton's personal life, in fact bypassed President Clinton's State of the Union address because of what he considered to be the unseemly conduct of President Clinton. And President Bush I think was someone he really felt that he needed to stand up to, and did on a number of occasions, including his opposition to the Iraq War and to President Bush's tax cuts, which actually he was quite prophetic about, in terms of their effect on the U.S. economy.

KELLY: One other thing Senator Byrd will be remembered for was his great skill at directing hundreds of millions of federal dollars back to his home state. What kind of precedent do you think that set in the Senate?

Prof. BAKER: Well, you know, one thing you never did with Senator Byrd was use the word "earmarks." He considered them congressionally directed expenditures and entirely appropriate, and very much in the constitutional tradition of an active and vital Congress. And he was someone who believed he could use the power of the federal government to lift up one of the poorest states in the nation, so you had the IRS and the ATF, a number of other agencies going over to West Virginia. He built miles and miles of highways in West Virginia with appropriations. And of course, you know, earmarks have fallen into disfavor, but he was always prepared to defend them with relentless vigor.

KELLY: Senator Byrd's death will, of course, leave the Senate with one fewer Democrat for now, but the expectation would be that the governor of West Virginia will quickly appoint another Democrat - is that right?

Prof. BAKER: I think he will, and of course if President Obama wants to sign the financial regulations reform bill this week, and so Governor Manchin can act very quickly. West Virginia has a rather small House delegation; there are only three House members from West Virginia - one of whom was defeated in the primary, Congressman Nick Rahall, who is a veteran Democrat from West Virginia, might be a possibility.

KELLY: All right, so we'll watch - watch for movement there. Thanks very much. That was Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University, speaking to us about the death this morning of Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

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Robert Byrd, Longest-Serving U.S. Senator, Dies At 92

Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history and an ardent defender of the chamber's traditions, died Monday. He was 92.

Byrd was best known for his ardent defense of the U.S. Constitution and his love of Senate history. He was also a man who fought the 1964 Civil Rights Act — to his later regret — but who took great pride in his fight against authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

He was not only the author of an award-winning four-volume history of the Senate; he was also, from the time he joined the chamber in January 1959, a major player in much of that history. He was a two-time majority leader and was chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

In a 2006 interview the day he became the longest-serving senator, Byrd proudly declared that there were four things his fellow West Virginians believed in: "God almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter's Little Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd — not necessarily in that order."

More than three dozen places in West Virginia bear Byrd's name. Nearly all were built with the hundreds of millions of federal dollars Byrd steered to his home state as the longtime chairman of the appropriations panel, which he called "the greatest committee."

"I'm going to do everything I can for the people of West Virginia. That's my duty! You can call it pork, if you want to, but that's all right. I know what my duty is. My duty is to my people," Byrd said.

'I Love This Senate'

Byrd also saw it as his duty to uphold the Senate's traditions. Unlike his more informal colleagues, he would always take his seat in the Senate to vote. On Feb. 26, 2009, he was one of only two Democrats to vote against giving the District of Columbia a voting seat in the House, questioning the bill's constitutionality. He also opposed the nomination of Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary, saying of Geithner's tax lapses: "Had he not been nominated for Treasury secretary, it's doubtful that he would have ever paid these taxes."

Heard On 'Morning Edition'

On June 21, 2007, Byrd cast his 18,000th vote.

"I love this Senate; I love it dearly. I love the Senate for its rules; I love the Senate for its precedents; I love the Senate for the difference that it can make in peoples' lives," Byrd said.

And many of Byrd's colleagues loved him.

"I have served in public office a long time, but no one can dispute the fact, as far as I'm concerned, that Robert Byrd is a giant," said Majority Leader Harry Reid. "I love Robert Byrd. He is a person who sets a standard for all of us."

Once TV coverage of the Senate began in the 1980s, Byrd delivered a celebrated series of lectures on the Roman Senate. His thesis was that the Roman Empire fell because its executive branch snatched power away from the legislative branch. In 2004, he warned his colleagues that the same fate could befall the United States.

"Why so deferential to presidents? Under the Constitution, we have three separate but equal branches of government," Byrd said. "How many of us know that? How many of us know that the executive branch is but the equal of the legislative branch, not above it?"

As he often would, Byrd then pulled out the well-worn copy of the Constitution that he always carried in his breast pocket.

"This Constitution impacts your life," Byrd said. "Every day that you are here on this planet, this Constitution has a bearing on it."

Byrd's Words

Byrd Reacts To News Of A High-Profile Dog Fighting Ring

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Byrd Speaks Out Against Going To War In Iraq

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Byrd Opposes A 2005 Attempt By Sen. Ted Stevens To Include Oil Proposals In A Spending Bill

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Byrd Attempts To 'Make The Congressional Record Come Alive'

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And the Constitution, Byrd said, empowers Congress — not the president — to declare war. In October 2002, Byrd failed to muster enough support to filibuster the resolution authorizing President Bush to make the call on using force against Iraq. Byrd warned senators that they were making, as he put it, "one horrible mistake."

"The president is hoping to secure power under the Constitution that no president has ever claimed before, never," Byrd said. "The Bush administration wants (the) president to have the power to launch this nation into war — without provocation and without clear evidence of an imminent attack on the United States. And we're going to be foolish enough to give it to him."

Byrd said of all the votes he cast, he was proudest of the one opposing the Iraq resolution.

'Be Careful What You Join'

In a 2006 interview, he recalled voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"I'm sorry for that vote. I made a mistake. If I had to do it over again, I'd vote differently," Byrd said.

When asked how he felt about belonging to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, he replied, "Terrible."

"How many more times am I going to have to say it? I've said it hundreds of times. I don't mind saying it again. It was terrible, it was a mistake, and I say that the young people of today ought to take a lesson from that. They ought to be careful what they join," Byrd said.

Byrd was also widely criticized for language he used in a 2001 Fox News interview when asked about race relations. Byrd said, "Those problems are largely behind us."

"My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody,' " Byrd said. "And we practiced that there are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word."

Byrd awaits the hearse carrying the remains of another long-serving senator, Edward Kennedy, outside the Capitol on Aug. 29, 2009, in Washington. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Byrd awaits the hearse carrying the remains of another long-serving senator, Edward Kennedy, outside the Capitol on Aug. 29, 2009, in Washington.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Byrd subsequently apologized for using an epithet he said dated back to his boyhood in the hills of West Virginia.

'After That, The Dark'

Age also became an issue for Byrd in recent years as he struggled with a tremor that often slowed his speech and forced him to walk with two canes. There were news reports that colleagues thought it was time to move him out of the Appropriations Committee chairmanship. Byrd angrily reacted to such reports in a 2007 floor speech.

"In this Internet-savvy, media-infused culture, we have forgotten that people do get older. Even, dare I say it, old. Old!"

Byrd's wife of nearly 69 years, Erma Ora James, died in 2006 after a long illness. They had two daughters, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore.

Byrd loved to regale fellow senators with tales of growing up poor in West Virginia. Byrd may be best remembered, though, for his love of poetry.

"Poetry, simply put, is beauty defined," Byrd said.

Byrd could recite long passages of poems entirely by heart. He commemorated National Poetry Month in 2001 with Alfred Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar:"

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

Timeline: Robert C. Byrd

Nov. 20, 1917: Born in North Wilkesboro, N.C. His mother dies a year later.

1920: Moves to West Virginia.

1934: Graduates as valedictorian from Mark Twain High School.

1937: Marries Erma Ora James. They will have two daughters, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore.

1942: Joins the Ku Klux Klan.

1946: Elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates.

1950: Elected to the West Virginia Senate.

1952: Elected to the United States House of Representatives. While running, announces that he left the KKK.

1958: Elected to the United States Senate.

1963: Graduates cum laude from American University's Washington College of Law.

1964: Filibusters against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The bill passes overwhelmingly.)

1967: Elected secretary of Senate Democratic Conference (re-elected in 1969).

1969: Starts the Robert C. Byrd Scholastic Recognition Award, in which the valedictorian at each West Virginia public and private high school receives a savings bond.

1971: Becomes Senate Majority Whip (re-elected in 1973 and 1975).

1977: Elected Senate Majority Leader.

1981: Elected Senate Minority Leader.

1985: Instrumental in establishing the nation's only merit-based scholarship program funded through the U.S. Department of Education.

1989: Elected chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

1994: Awarded B.A. in political science from Marshall University.

October 2002: Tries but fails to gather support for a filibuster against the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq.

March 25, 2006: Wife dies after battling a long illness.

June 11, 2006: Becomes the longest-serving senator in U.S. history.

Nov. 7, 2006: Elected to an unprecedented ninth consecutive term in the Senate.

June 21, 2007: Casts his 18,000th vote.

July 19, 2007: Gives a 25-minute passionate speech in the Senate against dog fighting, in response to the indictment of football player Michael Vick.

May 19, 2008: Endorses Barack Obama for president, a week after the West Virginia Democratic Primary, in which Hillary Clinton defeated Obama by 41 percent.

October 2008: Presented the Dr. Perry F. Harris Distinguished Fiddler Award at the Grand Ole Opry for his fiddle-playing passion.

Feb. 26, 2009: Votes against the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009.

Nov. 18, 2009: Becomes longest-serving member in congressional history.

Dec. 24, 2009: Votes in favor of landmark health care legislation, saying, "This is for my friend Ted Kennedy — Aye!" Sen. Kennedy, who had long pushed for a health care overhaul, had died four months earlier from complications related to a brain tumor.

June 28, 2010: Dies at age 92.

— NPR staff, The Associated Press