Senator Robert Byrd, who was hospitalized last week for heat exhaustion, passed away early this morning of causes not yet announced. Sen. Byrd was the longest serving member of the U.S. Senate, having been elected an unprecedented nine times beginning in 1958. He served as Senate Majority Leader twice and chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Sen. Byrd saw himself, and was seen by others, as the guardian of the Senate's prerogatives and its living history.
He was famed for his classic oratorical skills -- his speeches seasoned with biblical and classical allusions. Above all he took pride in being the Senate's resident constitutional scholar, keeping a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. During the Bush administration he exercised that role often -- pointing out the patent unconstitutionality of much that the administration and the Republicans in Congress were doing. All too often, he seemed to be a lone voice in the Congress putting the Constitution and American values above panic over national security and the war on terror.
An orphan, raised in the grinding poverty of the West Virginia coal fields, he had few opportunities in life but he worked his way through night school and made the best of those opportunities he had. Beginning his political career as a state legislator in the late 1940s, he was the only West Virginian to be elected to both houses of the state legislature and both houses of Congress. Early in his adult life he was a memeber of the Ku Klux Klan, rising to the rank of Exalted Cyclops, and his early votes in Congress were clearly racist and included participation in the filibusters against the civil rights legislation of the Sixties. In later years, he apologized often for these early actions and became a firm supporter of civil rights.
A lifelong believer in the value and importance of education, he was particularly known for his support of continuing education -- adult education, vocational schools, community colleges, etc.. Practicing what he preached, he took night classes while serving in the U.S. House from 1953 to 1959, earning his law degree from American University in 1963. He is the only member of Congress in history to put himself through law school while in office.
Senator Byrd is a voice in our Senate that will be greatly missed. I just hope that someone will take up his role in reminding those in power that their powers are always and regardless of circumstance subject to the rule of the Constitution of the United States.