US Senator Robert Byrd, a fiery orator versed in the classics and a power broker who steered billions of federal dollars to the state of his Depression-era upbringing, died yesterday. He was 92.
A spokesman for the family, Jesse Jacobs, said Byrd died peacefully at about 3am at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia. He had been in the hospital since late last week.
At first Byrd was believed to be suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration, but other medical conditions developed. He had been in frail health for several years.
Byrd, a Democrat, was the longest-serving senator in history, holding his seat for more than 50 years. He was the Senate’s majority leader for six of those years and was third in the line of succession to the presidency, behind US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
US Senator Jay Rockefeller, a fellow West Virginian, said it was his “greatest privilege” to serve with Byrd.
“I looked up to him, I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone,” Rockefeller said.
In comportment and style, Byrd often seemed a throwback to the courtly 19th century. He could recite poetry, quote the Bible, discuss the Constitutional Convention and detail the Peloponnesian Wars — and frequently did in Senate debates.
Yet there was nothing courtly about his exercise of power.
Byrd was a master of the Senate’s bewildering rules and longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls a third of the US$3 trillion federal budget. He was willing to use both to reward friends and punish those he viewed as having slighted him.
“Bob is a living encyclopedia, and legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him,” former House speaker Jim Wright once said in remarks Byrd later displayed in his office.
In 1971, Byrd ousted senator Edward Kennedy as the Democrats’ second in command. He was elected majority leader in 1976 and held the post until Democrats lost control of the Senate four years later. He remained his party’s leader through six years in the minority, then spent another two years as majority leader.
Byrd stepped aside as majority leader in 1989, when Democrats sought a more contemporary spokesman. His consolation price was the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, with control over almost limitless federal spending.
Within two years, he surpassed his five-year goal of making sure more than US$1 billion in federal funds was sent back to West Virginia, money used to build highways, bridges, buildings and other facilities, some named after him.
In 2006 vote, Byrd won an unprecedented ninth term in the Senate with 64 percent of the vote, just months after surpassing Strom Thurmond’s record as its longest-serving member.
But Byrd also seemed to slow after the death of Erma, his wife of almost 69 years, in 2006. Frail and wistful, he used two canes to walk. By last year, aides were bringing him to and from the Senate floor in a wheelchair.
In November last year, he surrendered his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.
Byrd’s lodestar was protecting the Constitution; he frequently pulled out a dog-eared copy of it.
Unlike other prominent Senate Democrats who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, Byrd stood firm in opposition.
“The people are becoming more and more aware that we were hoodwinked, that the leaders of this country misrepresented or exaggerated the necessity for invading Iraq,” Byrd said.