Remembering Robert Byrd

During the George W. Bush years, he was too angry to die.


Did you know that Sen. Robert C. Byrd loved a certain farewell speech by Aaron Burr, Jefferson's Vice President? Burr was also the president of the Senate, a far more important post as far as Byrd was concerned. Not only did he speak the speech from time to time on the floor of the Senate, but for  Byrd-watchers above in the press gallery, he reenacted it. Suddenly we the listeners were transported back to 1805 to hear the prophecy that if the Constitution were ever destined to perish, its expiring agonies would be witnessed on this floor. It is here--it is here. Byrd got down on his hands and knees to make this point.

Byrd had a fabulous sense of the past, of the ghosts and shadows walking the halls in the Capitol, including Daniel Webster and John F. Kennedy. When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's brain cancer was announced in May 2008, it was a rare thing to see a senator weep for another openly on the floor as he did, speaking of his love and friendship for the man once his rival for majority leader--so long ago. 

There were many "firsts" in his life, which began back in the days of the worldwide influenza epidemic. His mother died of influenza and left her baby son to be raised by an uncle and aunt. Byrd came from a humble coal mining family. Learning to play the fiddle when he was young gave him a potent political instrument later in life, in the craggy hills and valleys of his state. He sang well, too, on the stump: folk songs such as "Old Joe Clarke" and "Let the Circle be Unbroken."

No other senator in his day could quote Shakespeare so flawlessly from memory. No other senator guarded and enforced the customs and rules of the chamber as well. To my knowledge, no other senator made a point to carry the Constitution in his breast pocket. His courtliness could have been bottled. Over the half century he served in the Senate he never lost his sense of wonder about being there, every precious minute of it, he said in a valedictory. 

One of the most precious books in my library was given to me by Byrd as I left my job as a rookie reporter on the Hill about a dozen years ago for the Baltimore Sun. The volume is a beautiful book of Senate history that he authored. When he gave it to me, he spoke about the "providential" nature of the tremendously gifted Founding Fathers assembling in Philadelphia in 1776. I always loved history, but Byrd taught me how to love it more. He took history personally, and once remarked to the Senate that if Hannibal of Carthage had a cell phone while crossing the Alps, history might have been different. He told me West Virginia was known as "A Daughter of the Rebellion,"  a section of Virginia admitted to the Union during the Civil War as a state of its own.

They way I first met the snow-haired senator was when I interviewed him in his office about a government-published collection of floor speeches, The Senate of the Roman Republic. The central message was that Julius Caesar did not seize power; rather the Roman Senate ceded it to him, with tragic results. 

There in his office was a framed memento of a fateful firestorm, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in November 1991, when Hill accused Thomas, during his confirmation hearings, of sexual harassment when he was her boss at the EEOC. I inspected the legal pad on which an important speech, often overlooked, was written. Byrd was the only senator to declare passionately and publicly on the floor that he believed Hill was telling the truth. The other 47 who voted against Thomas were more qualified, shall we say.  

For the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, Byrd was in failing health, but he was too mad to die. He was outraged at the Iraq War. He was offended at what he saw as Bush's cavalier disregard of the true cost of starting two wars and his way of dismissing dissent. Of all the political leaders he clashed with, Bush was the one who got under his skin. In a way, President Obama can take it as a compliment that Byrd died on his watch. He must have thought the nation safe for now. 

The Senate, Burr said, is a citadel of law, of order, of liberty. The Senate, Byrd said, is still the anchor of the Republic, the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation. May their spirits and speeches both continue to haunt the Senate halls and floor.

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