Whatever else you might think of him, Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.<TH>Va.) reached an impressive milestone on Wednesday.
The adopted son of a coal miner became the longest-serving lawmaker ever in the history of Congress: 56 years and 319 days.
Byrd, who is in poor health and turned 92 yesterday, is in his ninth term in the Senate. He has served under 11 presidents, beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.
The record for congressional longevity had belonged to Carl Hayden of Arizona, who served nearly 57 years in the House and Senate from 1912 to 1969. Three years ago, Byrd surpassed the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as the longest-serving senator.
Hayden was known as the “silent senator,” rarely speaking on the floor. Not so with Byrd, who in his more vigorous days displayed a fondness for fiery, long-winded oratory that evoked ancient Rome, the Bible, and the Constitution.
Along the way to his record-setting service, Byrd has made himself a target of critics. He founded a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. He filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Byrd told an interviewer in 2005 of his association with the hate group: “I know now I was wrong. I can’t erase what happened.”
In Congress, Byrd reached the heights of leadership in the Democratic Party and chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee. He became known as the “King of Pork” for his prolific and unapologetic funneling of tax dollars to his home state for economic development and public-works projects, many of which bear his name.
To his credit, he was an outspoken critic of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, warning that a military victory might come quickly but the occupation would last years and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
Now frail and hospitalized frequently, Byrd remains third in the line of succession to the presidency.
When a senator is slowed by health problems, there are inevitably calls for retirement. But that’s between Byrd and his constituents.
In an institution that reveres seniority, Byrd is now the most senior of all time.