RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The longest-serving United States senator in the nation's history has died. West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd passed away early this morning in a hospital in suburban Washington at the age of 92.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
He was the adopted son of a coal miner and was best known for his ardent defense of both the U.S. Constitution and the traditions of the Senate. NPR's David Welna has this remembrance.
DAVID WELNA: Of all the Senate's members, surely none was more devoted to its history, nor more steeped in it, than Robert Carlyle Byrd. He not only wrote 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 twice majority leader, and he chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee. Never one to downplay his storied career, here was Byrd on the Senate floor in 2007.
Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): I've served in the Senate for one-quarter of the Senate's history - not quite an original cast member, but pretty close. Amen. You better believe it.
WELNA: More than three dozen places in West Virginia bear Byrd's name. Nearly all were built with the hundreds of millions of federal dollars that Byrd steered to his home state while at the helm of the Appropriations panel, which he called the greatest committee.
Sen. BYRD: And I'm going to do everything I can for the people of West Virginia. That's my duty. They can call it pork if they want to, but that's all right. I know what my duty is. My duty is to my people.
WELNA: Byrd also saw it his duty to uphold Senate tradition. Unlike his colleagues, he would always formally take his seat in the Senate to vote. Here's Byrd in June of 2007, on the day he cast his 18,000th vote.
Sen. BYRD: I love this Senate. I love it dearly. I love the Senate for its rules. I love the Senate for its precedence. I love the Senate for the difference that it can make in people's lives.
WELNA: And many of Byrd's colleagues loved him. Majority Leader Harry Reid called him a giant.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): I love Robert Byrd. I love Robert Byrd. He is a person who sets a standard for all of us.
WELNA: Former Virginia Republican Senator John Warner added this.
Mr. JOHN WARNER (Former Republican Senator, Virginia): He's a great teacher. There's not a one of us that hasn't paused to stop, listen and learn from Bob Byrd's understanding of the institution of the Senate, its role today, and its important role tomorrow.
WELNA: When Senate sessions began being televised 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 the same fate could befall the United States.
Sen. BYRD: Why so deferential to presidents? Under the Constitution, we have three separate but equal branches of government. 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, not below it, but the equal?
WELNA: As was his custom, Byrd then pulled out the well-worn copy of the Constitution he always carried in his breast pocket.
Sen. BYRD: This Constitution impacts your life, your life, your life. Every day that you are here on this planet, this Constitution has a bearing on it.
WELNA: And the Constitution, Byrd said, empowers Congress, not the president, to declare war. In October 2002, Byrd failed to block the resolution that allowed then-President Bush to decide on invading Iraq. Byrd warned senators they were making, as he put it, one horrible mistake.
Sen. BYRD: The president is hoping to secure power under the Constitution that no president has ever claimed before. Never. He wants the power. The Bush administration wants that 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.
WELNA: Byrd said of all the votes he cast, he was proudest of the one opposing the Iraq resolution. However, in a 2006 interview, he recalled voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he filibustered 14 straight hours.
Sen. BYRD: And I'm sorry for that vote. I made a mistake. If I had it to do over again, I'd vote differently.
WELNA: You also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. How do you feel about that today?
Sen. BYRD: 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.
WELNA: Byrd was also widely criticized for language he used when asked about race relations in a 2001 Fox News interview. Byrd replied that quote: Those problems are largely behind us. He then said this.
Sen. BYRD: My old mom told me, Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody. We practiced that. There are white niggers - I have seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word.
WELNA: Byrd subsequently apologized for using an epithet he said dated back to his boyhood in the hills of West Virginia. He loved to regale his fellow senators with tales of growing up there, dirt poor. In an exchange with New York Democrat Charles Schumer just before Valentine's Day in 2003, Byrd described a technique he used to court his wife, Irma.
Sen. BYRD: I'm here to tell these young men who are pages, that's the way you court your girl, with another boy's bubblegum.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Would my friend, my leader from West Virginia...
Sen. BYRD: Yes, would the Congressional Record please note that there was laughter?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman: Without objection. Senator from New York.
Sen. SCHUMER: I would simply...
Sen. BYRD: Would the reporter kindly note that there was laughter again in the Congressional Record? Got to make that Congressional Record come alive.
Sen. SCHUMER: My colleague from West Virginia, if he might yield...
Sen. BYRD: Yes.
Sen. SCHUMER: ...is making everything come alive in this chamber. We haven't had a happier moment in a long time.
WELNA: Byrd may be best remembered, though, for his love of verse.
Sen. BYRD: Poetry is, simply put - is beauty defined.
WELNA: And Byrd could recite long passages entirely by heart. He commemorated National Poetry Month in 2001 with Alfred Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar."
Sen. BYRD: Twilight and evening bell, and after that the dark. And may there be no sadness of farewell, when I embark. For though from out our borne 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.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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