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Robert Byrd dies at 92; U.S. senator from West Virginia

The lawmaker, who took office in 1959, served longer and cast more votes than any other member of Congress in U.S. history.

June 29, 2010|By Johanna Neuman, Special to the Los Angeles Times

In 1946, Byrd ran for a seat in the state House of Delegates, campaigning, according to the almanac, "in every hollow in the county, playing his fiddle and even going to the length of joining the Ku Klux Klan." He quickly renounced his membership but it would be years before he renounced segregationist politics -- in 1967 he voted against confirmation of the Supreme Court's first black justice, Thurgood Marshall.

None of this hurt him politically in West Virginia. He never lost an election. When a congressman retired in 1952, Byrd won the seat. By 1958, with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House and despite opposition from the United Mine Workers Union and the coal companies, he won election to the Senate.

While in the state Legislature, he attended college but according to his Senate biography did not receive his political science degree from Marshall University until 1994 -- some 60 years after high school. While in the Senate, he went to law school at night, graduating from American University at 46 and receiving his diploma from the 1963 commencement speaker, President John F. Kennedy.

The years of protracted education made him zealous about knowledge. Even while campaigning in impoverished West Virginia, he infused his speeches with an old-fashioned, stem-winding oratory, calling on Cicero or Thucydides as needed, sometimes to the puzzlement of constituents.

He was elected Democratic whip in 1971. In 1977 he was elevated to majority leader, serving in that post until 1981, and again from 1985 to 1989. He abandoned what he called "the grubby work" of being Senate majority leader in 1989, assuming the job he had long coveted: chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he vowed to become West Virginia's leading industry. In 2000 alone the appropriations bill included more than $1 billion of spending in West Virginia, much of it attributable to Byrd's steering.

In his later years, beset by health problems and mourning the loss of his wife, Emma, in 2006 after 69 years of marriage, Byrd grew more publicly emotional. He cried on the Senate floor at the news that Sen. Edward Kennedy had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. When Kennedy had a seizure at Obama's post-inauguration lunch on Capitol Hill, Byrd was so upset that he too was taken out of the event in a wheelchair.

And he all but monopolized a hearing on tainted pet food from China, rhapsodizing over his Shih Tzu. So poignant were his outbursts that Democratic colleagues discussed -- but did not implement -- a plan making Byrd the emeritus chairman and naming Washington state's Patty Murray the "acting chairwoman."

Byrd is survived by daughters Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Neuman is a former Times staff writer.

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