Robert Byrd: a reading list

Sen. Robert Byrd will be remembered for his words – both as an author and an orator.

Kevin Lamarque
Sen. Robert C. Byrd was well known for adding poetic and classical flourishes to his speeches.

This week the press will be full of obituaries chronicling the life of Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest serving member of the US Senate, who died today, June 28, at the age of 92. Among the many things to be noted about this longtime public servant, who earned his first college degree in 1963 (he took night classes at American University to earn a law degree, becoming the first member of Congress to do so as an incumbent), was his love of words.

"Byrd did not use the English language the way that other politicians do," wrote Steve Kettmann, Bryd's coauthor of the 2008 book "Letters to a President." "He loved books and for years his idea of the ideal break from his duties in the Senate was to spend his weeks off digging through books. He had a rococo speaking style that some mocked, but it was all his, though it very much drew on the tradition of southern oratory, and there was nothing feigned about his erudition."

Byrd's long career was not without controversy. His early membership in the Ku Klux Klan will never be forgotten, and most of those who called him the "King of Pork" (due to his capacity for appropriating large amounts of spending for tiny West Virginia) did not intend it as a compliment. Byrd's heated opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq made him a hero in the eyes of some Americans – and a disloyal obstructionist in the eyes of others.

But Byrd was also well known on both sides of the aisle as a crafter of language. Although he was most often an author of speeches, he was occasionally a book author as well. Readers interested in learning more about Byrd through his own words have only to head to the library or bookstore. Among the titles authored by Byrd:

1. "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields" by Robert C. Byrd. (West Virginia University Press, 2005). Byrd's lengthy (832 pages) autobiography tells the story of his journey from Stotesbury, W.V., to Washington, D.C., and also touches on one of the most controversial aspects of his career – his youthful membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

2. "Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency" by Robert C. Byrd. (W.W. Norton, 2005). No one could accuse Byrd of failing to make his position clearly known in this book. Angry about America's 2003 invasion of Iraq, "Losing America" is a full-scale attack on the presidency of George W. Bush. Byrd's language in this book is so harsh that one reviewer noted that, "Byrd must either be confident he'll never need to be on Bush's good side or is simply too furious to care."

3. "Letter to the New President: Commonsense Lessons for our Next Leader" by Robert C. Byrd and Steve Kettmann (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009). Byrd's book-length note of advice to newly elected Barack Obama offers what one reviewer called "a long view of the best and worst impulses of those who have served as president," based on Byrd's 50-plus years of dealing with chief executives. (Harry S. Truman, often referred to here, was Byrd's personal favorite.)

4. "We Stand Passively Mute" by Robert C. Byrd (Papynjay Press, 2005). This collection of 27 speeches delivered by Byrd in opposition to the Iraq war chronicles what Byrd has called the proudest moment of his career.

5. "The Senate of the Roman Republic" by Robert C. Byrd (University Press of the Pacific, 2001). Those who called him the "King of Pork" may find it ironic, but Byrd was also a crusader against presidential spending. This book, a collection of speeches of Byrd's railing against executive spending, draws on parallels to similar tussles over spending in the Roman Senate.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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