Former Sen. George Smathers used to tell the story about how Robert C. Byrd had turned down a half-dozen invitations to join other senators in Florida for deep sea fishing or golf or gin rummy or tennis.
“I have never in my life played a game of cards. I have never had a golf club in my hand. I have never in life hit a tennis ball,” Byrd told the Florida Democrat, according to an interview Smathers gave to a Senate historian.
“I don’t do any of those things. I have only had to work all my life.”
After almost 48 years in the Senate, Byrd is still working. On Monday, the West Virginia Democrat passes the late GOP Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as the longest serving senator in history.
And Byrd is not finished.
Slowed by age and grief-stricken over the recent death of Erma, his wife of almost 69 years, Byrd still is running for an unprecedented ninth term. At 88, he uses two canes as he slowly makes his way around the Capitol. Yet he can thunder orations from the Senate floor.
“I can speak with fire because my convictions run deep,” Byrd said in an hourlong interview in his Capitol office. “I’m not just an ordinary senator. I know it and you know it.”
That uncharacteristic bit of immodesty came shortly after Byrd was asked whether he will be able to complete a full six-year term that would end when he is 95. When asked about his age and his stamina, Byrd bristles.
“Age has nothing to do with it except as it might affect one’s strength, endurance and stamina. Age does not affect me except in my legs,” Byrd said. “And I’ve got a head up here that hasn’t changed one iota in the last 25 years.”
Byrd’s improbable rise began in the coalfields of West Virginia. The adopted son of a miner, he grew up as poor as any American politician, living in a house without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. His rise to the upper echelons of U.S. politics began in 1946 when, as a fiddle-playing butcher, he won a seat in the state’s House of Delegates.
Within 12 years, Byrd had made his way through the West Virginia Senate and the U.S. House. He won election to the Senate in 1958. Dwight Eisenhower was president and it was a year after the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space with Sputnik.
Eschewing the limelight to focus on the nuts and bolts of Senate business, Byrd quickly became an inside player. He did a lot of grunt work in junior leadership posts, focusing on little details that made his colleagues’ lives easier: arranging times for votes and colleagues’ floor speeches, and making sure their amendments got votes. He became majority leader _ the Senate’s top post _ in 1977.
He admits to a few errors along the way.
Byrd participated in an unsuccessful filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a young man, he join the Ku Klux Klan, a mistake he has been saddled with since the early 1940’s.
Byrd is a senator from another era. In an age where politics has long since been dominated by soundbites and snappy visuals, he cites Roman history, quotes from the Bible and reads poetry in his Senate speeches.
While young people today program I-pods and design home pages on MySpace.com, Byrd got Congress to require schools and colleges to teach about the Constitution every Sept. 17, the day the document was adopted in 1787. He always carries a copy in his breast pocket and gives each incoming freshman senator one, calling it the “greatest document of its kind.”
Byrd also holds the Senate and its rules in reverence. He is quick to rebut attacks on filibusters that allow a minority of 41 senators to defeat legislation, or the ability of a senator to offer amendments on any topic to most bills.
“He is a fierce defender of the Senate and its prerogatives in ways that I think the founding fathers really intended the Senate to be,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Particularly “at a time in which both its influence and its power are being usurped by the exaggerated view of the executive of its own powers,” added Kennedy, whom Byrd ousted as the Democrats’ whip in 1971 in his climb to power.
When Byrd first came to the Senate, he heeded the advice of Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., to master those rules. He has used them to his advantage ever since.
The Senate, however, has seen much better days, according to Byrd. Partisan politics is now everything. Raising campaign cash is too time consuming. Workweeks are usually kept short, with votes on Fridays a rarity.
Today’s senators would be left gasping at the paces Byrd put the Senate through when he ran it. Monday through Friday workweeks. Late-night votes. Fewer recesses. Byrd himself used to hold his weekly news conferences on Saturdays.
“I ran the Senate like a stern parent,” Byrd wrote in his memoir published last year, “Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.”
Byrd left his leadership post in 1989 to take the helm of the Appropriations Committee, where he turned on a federal spigot of new highways, water projects, federal buildings and job training centers for West Virginia. The largesse included moving a new FBI fingerprint identification center from Washington to Clarksburg, W.Va., where it would eventually employ more than 2,300.
He earned a lot of criticism for being too greedy in directing taxpayer dollars to the Mountain State. Byrd makes no apologies.
“Naturally I was going to send some home to West Virginia. Proud of it,” Byrd said. “The roads are there. People have walked up to me in motels all over the state _ they’re people from other states _ they say, ‘Senator, I admire your highways.'”
Elections in 1994 and 2002 turned his beloved chairmanship over to Republicans. Byrd naturally has less clout and has to work within the clubby atmosphere on the Appropriations Committee to have an impact.
“He’s not involved in as many fights as maybe he was before,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. “But when he chooses to engage he has a significant impact.”
Byrd has been a political institution in West Virginia for as long as anybody can remember. He has run 14 times and never lost. But with the state’s drift toward the GOP column and with Byrd’s advancing age, GOP leaders tried to recruit Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a rising star, to run against him this year.
Polls had shown Byrd, who had cut back on travel to the state to tend to his ailing wife, vulnerable. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign ran an ad _ featuring an unflattering picture of Byrd _ attacking his voting record.
Byrd raised his profile in the state, lifting his poll numbers. Capito demurred, and Byrd’s opponent is GOP businessman John Raese, who’s well behind in the polls.
Still, Byrd’s taking no chances, having raised more than $3.8 million, far more that any previous campaign.
Some of that support is coming from unlikely sources: Internet-based groups such as MoveOn.org, whose members contributed more than $800,000 to Byrd in less than three days during a fundraising blitz last year.
Byrd’s unlikely rise as a darling of the liberal blogosphere came after he came out strongly against the war in Iraq. While prominent Senate Democrats such as 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry of Massachusetts, Hillary Clinton of New York and Harry Reid of Nevada voted to authorize the war, Byrd stood firm in opposition.
Now that public opinion on the war has shifted, Byrd feels gratified.
“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.
As for President Bush, Byrd was originally impressed with the Republican, the 11th president the West Virginian has served with since entering Congress in 1953. Not anymore. Tax cuts have drained the Treasury and the war is costing lives and money for domestic priorities.
“History still must render a verdict on him,” Byrd said of Bush. “He started with great promise, I thought. I had great hopes for him. I liked the way he seemed to be humble, down to Earth. As time went on, of course, in my judgment he did not bear out my early hopes. I’ll leave it at that.”
© 2006 The Associated Press