Robert Byrd: His last appearance on the Senate floor

Sen. Robert Byrd’s knowledge of Senate history and precedent laced his floor speeches, informed his strategy as a party leader, and was an encyclopedic resource to his colleagues.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
In this 2007 photo, Sen. Robert Byrd, (D) of West Virginia, is pictured during the celebration for the recovery and restoration of the American bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States. Byrd, a fiery orator versed in the classics and a hard-charging power broker who steered billions of federal dollars to the state of his Depression-era upbringing, died Monday, June 28, 2010.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia gave much thought to his own place in history, including his last appearance on the floor of the US Senate, where he is to lie in repose Thursday.

“His eyes twinkled and his face brightened when we touched on that subject at several points over the years,” says Richard Baker, the former Senate historian. “The Senate was everything to him.”

Not since 1959 – Byrd’s freshman year in the US Senate – has the Senate honored one of its own with a memorial in the Senate chamber, then Sen. William “Wild Bill” Langer (R) of North Dakota. Before World War II, it was common to hold funerals for former colleagues in the Senate chamber. Since then, expanded airline routes have made travel to services in a member’s home state more feasible. Byrd wanted both.

IN PICTURES: Senator Robert Byrd through the years

In another nod toward history, his casket will be placed on the Lincoln catafalque, constructed in haste after the 16th president’s assassination. It’s used for former presidents and others who have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda. (Byrd appreciated that it was President Lincoln who signed the law admitting West Virginia to the Union.)

Byrd spent more than half a century studying Senate history and precedent. It laced his floor speeches, informed his strategy as Senate Democratic leader from 1977-89, and was an encyclopedic resource to colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

No one, save the Senate parliamentarian, knew these precedents better. Byrd’s late wife, Erma, used to complain to friends that she never got to dust her dining room table, because it was always piled high with books. Byrd’s four-volume history of the Senate, based on 100 floor speeches prepared (and memorized) for the 200th anniversary of the US Senate in 1989, is a standard reference on Capitol Hill.

“After two hundred years, [the Senate] is still the anchor of the Republic, the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation,” he said in a floor speech in 1989. “It has weathered the storms of adversity, withstood the barbs of cynics and the attacks of critics, and provided stability and strength to the nation during periods of civil strife and uncertainty, panics and depressions. In war and peace, it has been the sure refuge and protector of the rights of a political minority. And today, the Senate still stands – the great forum of constitutional American Liberty!”

And, in another speech: “Many new senators come here thinking that they will quickly make their mark on the institution. Soon, however, they learn that it is the institution that makes its mark on them. The Senate goes on, like Tennyson’s brook, forever, and it is far greater than the sum of its one hundred parts.”

IN PICTURES: Senator Robert Byrd through the years


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