The death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D., W.Va.) on Monday at age 92 is a loss for the nation and for the Senate as an institution.
Byrd served 51 years in the Senate, longer than anyone in history. He spent each one of those years defending the independence of the legislative branch of government.
When constituents would ask Byrd how many presidents he served under, he had a telling reply: “None. I have served with presidents, not under them.” (Including six years in the House, he served with 11 presidents).
He stood up to presidents regardless of their party. He fought an effort to give President Clinton the line-item veto. But perhaps Byrd’s finest hour was in 2003, when Byrd opposed President George W. Bush’s request to authorize the military invasion of Iraq. Other prominent Democrats, such as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, gave in to political considerations, but Byrd stood firm in his losing effort.
He carried a dog-eared copy of the Constitution in his suit pocket and referred to it frequently in tussles over executive branch power. His oratory was filled with references to the Bible and ancient Rome.
Byrd had obvious flaws that should not be overlooked in an obituary. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he became a wasteful master of pork-barrel politics, sending billions in federal dollars in earmarks for his impoverished state. Among all the dams, highways, and federal buildings, at least 30 bear his name.
He got his start in politics after founding a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. Byrd waged an unsuccessful, 14-hour filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But his attitudes did evolve. He later called his membership in the KKK a “sad mistake” and apologized. He said that he had “reflected the fears and prejudices” of the time.
The nation’s attitudes moderated along with him. In 2008 Barack Obama was elected the country’s first African American president. In South Carolina this year, Tim Scott is poised to become the first black Republican elected to Congress from the Deep South in more than 100 years.
Byrd’s personal story proved that success in America is possible from the humblest of beginnings. He grew up in a home without electricity or plumbing, educated himself and rose to become third in line of succession to the presidency.
But his highest value was his unyielding determination that Congress be treated always as a coequal branch of government. Said Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, “He recalled the Senate to its purposes.” For that, the nation should be grateful.