Robert C. Byrd, doyen of the United States Senate, died on June 28th, aged 92
WHENEVER Robert Byrd walked the corridors and chambers of the Senate, he went in a crowd of people. Some were his constituents, in camouflage caps and T-shirts, gape-mouthed among the gilt and marble, come to talk to him about the problems of Marsh Fork Elementary School or their uncle's black lung. But he also saw Henry Foote of Mississippi wielding his pistol, Sam Houston of Texas whittling wooden hearts for the ladies, and little John Randolph of Virginia strutting past with his hunting dogs; and Cicero in the shadows, and just behind him Cato the younger, whispering “I would not be beholden to a tyrant.”
The Roman Senate fascinated Mr Byrd almost as much as the American. When it declined, the Republic fell. And why had it declined? Because it had become passive, failed to raise its voice; and especially because it had handed meekly to Caesar and Sulla the power of the pursestrings. Mr Byrd therefore spent his career—the longest Senate service in American history, incorporating six years as majority whip, 12 years as majority or minority leader and 20 years as chairman or ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee—learning, describing and expertly applying the rules that kept the Senate a force in government. He was constantly alert both to executive overreach and to weakness in his own beloved chamber, “the anchor of the Republic, the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation”.
Dignity was his byword: three-piece suits, velvet waistcoats and the rolling oratory of a man who had been a fine lay preacher before he left West Virginia. His courtesy was instinctive, his thank-you notes reliably there the next day. The point of all this, though, was to uphold the worth of the Senate. At meetings with the president he insisted on taking a staff person, because the president had one, and the branches were equal. He kept laptops out of the chamber, but voted for televised proceedings, so that the Senate would be visible to the people to whom it belonged. The constitution, as he reminded listeners, pulling it from his left breast pocket where he kept it over his heart, had made the American people sovereign and mentioned their Congress first. Now, like him, they had to revere and defend it.
He grappled masterfully with 11 presidents, and liked them less as he got older. George Bush junior he detested, a reckless and arrogant man who, on Iraq, overrode the war-declaring powers of Congress while the Senate stood pitifully by. “In this terrible show of weakness”, Mr Byrd wrote, “the Senate left an indelible stain upon its own escutcheon.” Some Democrats pleased him little better. Though most of his 18,500 votes went with his party, he had an old southerner's conservative streak, besides a West Virginian's tenderness for coal-mining and steel-making; and party ran second to the Senate, in any case. Bill Clinton's bid to seize the pursestrings from Congress in the 1990s with the line-item budget veto was opposed by Mr Byrd in 14 separate one-hour speeches, learned by heart, to slow up debate. He had filibustered before, the old-fashioned way: in 1964 for a straight 14 hours 13 minutes, to try to kill the Civil Rights Act.
This he later regretted. He was sorry, too, that he found himself slipping into talk of “white niggers” and “race mongrels”, and that he was exposed as an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, charging 150 friends and colleagues $10 membership and $3 robe-and-hood hire to form a chapter in 1943 in Crab Orchard, West Virginia. He had briefly joined the Klan for its anticommunism, he explained, and for the platform it gave him, a mere butcher and fiddle-player, to organise people locally. This, with his spirited playing of “Rye Whiskey” and “Turkey in the Straw”, soon got him elected to the state House of Delegates in 1946, the US House of Representatives in 1952 and, by 1958, at 40, the Senate, which through almost nine terms he never left.
Yet his heart was in West Virginia, a poor and backward state of mountains and coal mines, where foster-parents had brought him up without power or running water and he had finished college, in a decade of night classes, five years after he joined the Senate. His years on Appropriations were spent not just juggling favours and nitpicking on procedure, but also proudly channelling money to the hills and hollows: making gravel tracks into Robert C. Byrd Freeways, turning fetid lock-ups into Robert C. Byrd Correctional Institutions, setting up the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope to look at the stars. This, too, was what the Senate was for.
On the mountain top
In one of his weekly online columns he mused on the beauty of mountains, where God had revealed himself to Moses and Elijah had challenged the false prophets of Baal. A blogger or two pointed out that the lopped-off, naked mountains in the south of his state owed much to Mr Byrd's votes for uninhibited mining. He was unrepentant. Mining brought jobs, and burning coal kept America going. The people powered America; the Senate was the people's house; and the man who preserved the Senate, in all its glory and prodigality and arcane complexity, was Robert C. Byrd, King of Pork and senator senatorum.