Up this morning to the news that Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) had died at the age of 92. Senator Byrd was born on November 20, 1917, seven months after the United States formally entered the Great War. His birth name was Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr.; he was renamed Robert Carlyle Byrd by the aunt and uncle who adopted him after his mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918. He spent more than 50 years apologizing for a stint in the Ku Klux Klan in his mid-20s, a decision he later blamed on his "jejune and immature outlook."
By the time of his death, Robert Byrd had become the conscience of the Senate, a self-educated man who — among other accomplishments — wrote a four-volume history of the Senate. He holds the record for the longest service in the Senate, and spent six years as a U.S. Representative before his election to the Senate. He played the fiddle onstage at the Kennedy Center and the Grand Old Opry.
It's mind-boggling to think about the things he saw in his 92 years, but these are five that spring to mind.
1. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In August 1945, Robert Byrd was 27 years old and working as a shipyard welder. The "duck and cover" drills ended before I started elementary school, but Senator Byrd belonged to the only generation that fully understood the power of an atomic bomb. It wasn't theoretical to him, it was real in a way that I pray it will never be real to my generation, or future ones.
2. The end of Jim Crow. As a small child in Tidewater Virginia, I used to hear adults say — in a non-apology for the racist attitudes of our part of the South — "Well, we're not as bad as West Virginia." West Virginia was racist; Robert Byrd was racist. He changed. They changed. We changed. Of all of his achievements, perhaps the greatest was his willingness to be educated, and admit that he'd been wrong. He went from voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to endorsing Senator Barack Obama's candidacy for President in 2008.
3. The building of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Senator Byrd joined the Senate in January 1959; the Berlin Wall was constructed in August 1961. Byrd was a fervent anti-communist, and said that its anti-communist stance had been a major reason for his joining the Ku Klux Klan. The Cold War was real to him, and the fall of the Berlin Wall confirmed his belief in the power of democracy.
4. The space program. Senator Byrd served with Senator John Kennedy for a year before Senator Kennedy became President Kennedy, and he was such a close friend of Senator Ted Kennedy that he was overcome after Senator Kennedy suffered a seizure during the inaugural luncheon for President Barack Obama. West Virginia is a desperately poor state whose biggest industry has traditionally been coal-mining, but Senator Byrd was an environmentalist who believed that science and technology offered his state the best hope of economic development. The Biotechnology Science Center at Marshall University bears his name.
5. The attacks of September 11, 2001. In years to come, Senator Byrd may be remembered most for his opposition to the United States' response to the September 11 attacks. He opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. He opposed the war in Iraq. America was better than that, he said, and in deciding to attack Saddam Hussein we isolated ourselves rather than embracing our position as first among equals in a world community. "We proclaim a new doctrine of preemption which is understood by few and feared by many," he said. "When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends?" Read the whole speech here. Whether or not you agree with him — and I do, and believe that history has more than justified him — you can't deny the passion for this country that radiates from every word. In the end, Senator Byrd was a true patriot, and his loss diminishes us all.