Institutional Memories: Robert C. Byrd

Earlier this week, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia became the all-time longest serving member of Congress, racking up 20,774 days —  that’s 56 years, 320 days — that Byrd has been either a Congressman or Senator.  That makes him the Cal Ripken of Congress, and it’s an impressive record, a testament not only to the 92-year-old Byrd’s stamina and health, but to his unswerving commitment to the people of West Virginia, who thanked him by returning him to the Congress and the Senate again and again and again and . . . well, you get the idea.  He’s served three terms in the House, nine in the Senate, and, I believe, has never lost an election.

I’ve always liked Byrd.  Sure, he could be cantankerous and had — has — a habit of lecturing, but I always found those habits endearing. He belongs to a generation of Senators we don’t see much nowadays, either — he’s a Senator who loves the Senate, respects its traditions, and tries hard to uphold its integrity.  He loves debate and oratory — you could always count on him quoting Shakespeare off the top of his head (“Bring me my robes!”) — and while we often rolled our eyes when he took to the floor with another long speech, he was never dull, whether he was discussing Shay’s Rebellion, civil rights, or the infamous Twinkie defense.

He could also be blistering with members who he believed were not behaving in a manner worthy of the same institution that housed John Adams or Daniel Webster. When Senator Bob Packwood was accused of sexual harassment during the mid-1990s — indulging in activities that seem tame by today’s creepy Larry Craig/David Vitter/John Ensign/ad nauseum standards — Byrd was one of the few who angrily shook his finger at Packwood  on the floor and declared that he should “have the grace to go!” It genuinely pained him to see the Senate disgraced.

He also knows its history backwards and fowards, and had a series of speeches he delivered on its 200th anniversary in 1989 bound into a gorgeous three-volume history of the place, printed almost exclusively for Senators  (I was lucky enough to snag exactly one volume, which I rescued from a recycling bin).  He understands its rules and precedents like no other member, and God help any Senator who tries to outmaneuver Byrd using parliamentary procedure.

And yes, he knows how to bring home the bacon for his home state.  It’s with good reason there are countless structures and stretches of road in West Virginia named for the man; as a long-time member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — and he’s been the Ranking Member or Chairman for as long as I can remember — he’s never been shy about sending dollars back home. Like it or not, it’s all part of the job — and no one does it better than Byrd.

To staffers, he was always more than a little intimidating.  If he was sitting in the chair presiding over the Senate, staffers would try not to set foot in the well of the Senate — the area directly in front of the presiding officer — lest we fall under his withering glare.  To Byrd, the Senate is for Senators, and staff belong squarely behind the railed-off seating area at the back of the room.  My Senator once had an amendment pending, and shortly before its introduction, while it was sitting at the desk, the clerk beckoned me down to the well to help clear up a minor wording error.  Byrd was sitting in the chair at that moment, and I’ll never forget the look on his face as I staggered down to the front desk directly in front of him, my knees knocking.  It was all I could do not to say, “Hey, he ASKED me down here!”

And yet, he could also be incredibly generous to staff.  In my last month on the Hill, Byrd delivered a blistering, and hilarious, floor speech in which he derided what he called “verbal clutter” — the habit we have of using terms like “um,” “you know,” and “like” in our speech.  Byrd tut-tut-tutted and shook his head sadly, but he was clearly enjoying himself.  I thought it was so funny — and spot on — that I sent a short note over to his office telling him how much I had enjoyed the speech. Several days later, I received a thank you note back from the Senator.  At the bottom, in his steady hand, he had written, “How kind of you! Please come by my office so I may thank you in person!”

I’m sorry to say I moved away shortly thereafter and never had the chance to take the Senator up on his offer.  I wish I had.  He’s a good man, a terrific legislator, and a great historian.  I wish him nothing but the best.

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One response to “Institutional Memories: Robert C. Byrd

  1. Pingback: R.I.P. Senator Robert C. Byrd (1917-2010) « Brian Jay Jones